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Updated: 1 hour 48 min ago

Congress Urged to Cut Medicare Payments to Many Stand-Alone Emergency Rooms

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 04:00

The woman arrived at the emergency department gasping for air, her severe emphysema causing such shortness of breath that the physician who examined her put her on a ventilator immediately to help her breathe.

The patient lived across the street from the emergency department in suburban Denver, said Dr. David Friedenson, who cared for her that day a few years ago. The facility wasn't physically located at a hospital but was affiliated with North Suburban Medical Center several miles away.

Free-standing emergency departments have been cropping up in recent years and now number more than 500, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), which reports to Congress. Often touted as more convenient, less crowded alternatives to hospitals, they often attract suburban walk-in patients with good insurance whose medical problems are less acute than those who visit an emergency room located in a hospital.

If a recent MedPAC proposal is adopted, however, some providers predict that these free-standing facilities could become scarcer. Propelling the effort are concerns that MedPAC's payment for services at these facilities is higher than it should be since the patients who visit them are sometimes not as severely injured or ill as those at on-campus facilities.

The proposal would reduce Medicare payment rates by 30 percent for some services at hospital-affiliated free-standing emergency departments that are located within 6 miles of an on-campus hospital emergency department.

"There has been a growth in free-standing emergency departments in urban areas that does not seem to be addressing any particular access need for emergency care," said James Mathews, executive director of MedPAC. The convenience of a neighborhood emergency department may even induce demand, he said, calling it an "if you build it, they will come" effect.

Emergency care is more expensive than a visit to a primary care doctor or urgent care center, in part because emergency departments have to be on standby 24/7, with expensive equipment and personnel ready to handle serious car accidents, gunshot wounds and other trauma cases. Even though free-standing emergency departments have lower standby costs than hospital-based facilities, they typically receive the same Medicare rate for emergency services. The Medicare "facility fee" payments, which include some ancillary lab and imaging services but not reimbursement to physicians, are designed to help defray hospitals' overhead costs.

The proposal would affect only payments for Medicare beneficiaries. But private insurers often consider Medicare payment policies when setting their rules.

According to a MedPAC analysis of five markets -- Charlotte, N.C.; Cincinnati; Dallas; Denver; and Jacksonville, Fla. --  75 percent of the free-standing facilities were located within 6 miles of a hospital with an emergency department. The average drive time to the nearest hospital was 10 minutes.

Overall, the number of outpatient emergency department visits by Medicare beneficiaries increased 13.6 percent per capita from 2010 to 2015, compared with a 3.5 percent growth in physician visits, according to MedPAC. (The reported data doesn't distinguish between conventional and free-standing emergency facility visits.)

"I think [the MedPAC proposal] is a move in the right direction," said Dr. Renee Hsia, a professor of emergency medicine and health policy at the University of California-San Francisco who has written about free-standing emergency departments. "We have to understand there are limited resources, and the fixed costs for stand-alone EDs are lower."

Hospital representatives say the proposal could cause some free-standing emergency departments to close their doors.

"We are deeply concerned that MedPAC's recommendation has the potential to reduce patient access to care, particularly in vulnerable communities, following a year in which hospital EDs responded to record-setting natural disasters and flu infections," Joanna Hiatt Kim, vice president for payment policy at the American Hospital Association, said in a statement.

Independent free-standing emergency departments that are not affiliated with a hospital would not be affected by the MedPAC proposal. These facilities, which make up about a third of all free-standing emergency facilities, aren't clinically integrated with a hospital and can't participate in the Medicare program.

The MedPAC proposal will be included in the group's report to Congress in June.

Even though stand-alone emergency facilities might not routinely treat patients with serious trauma, they can provide lifesaving care, proponents say.

Friedenson said that for his emphysema patient, avoiding the 15- to 20-minute drive to the main hospital made a critical difference.

"By stopping at our emergency department, I truly think her life was saved," he said.

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Categories: News

Remove Trump, Defang Pence: Impeachment Is the Way

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 04:00

 Hazem Bader / AFP / Getty Images)Palestinians walk on a poster bearing images of Donald Trump and his deputy Mike Pence during a demonstration at the al-Quds Open University in Dura village on the outskirts of the West Bank town of Hebron on December 13, 2017. (Photo: Hazem Bader / AFP / Getty Images)

As matters currently stand, the odds of Donald Trump being impeached by this Congress are so profoundly minute, they defy even the existence of mathematics. There are no numbers -- here, there or anywhere -- that say such a thing is remotely possible. The federal government is rendered powerless by its own inadequacies; after giving a trillion dollars to rich people, there isn't much else the Republicans in the majority can do, so they are content to hunker in the bunker and see what November brings. Open support for impeachment, even among Democrats, is so gossamer right now that it doesn't cast a shadow in the high noon sun.

Rather than wallow in the riptides of the stormy present, cast your mind forward to the possibilities of the New Year. Imagine Trump -- mired in scandal and in a permanent state of full-throttle temper tantrum -- spending the summer and fall taking a lead pipe to any hopes the GOP had of retaining a majority in either chamber. The House and Senate are lost in a November bloodbath, the House by historic margins and the Senate by a nose. Finally, like the tolling of a funeral bell, the Mueller Report is made public after the special counsel finishes his investigation.

Maybe it's obstruction of justice. Maybe it's collusion with a foreign power to interfere with an election. Maybe it's money laundering. Maybe it's all of these and worse. Come January, a new Democratic Congress with the Mueller Report in hand will almost certainly have the necessary voltage to zap Donald Trump out of his current government sinecure and send him home to Trump Tower to watch his empire fall. As Paul Waldman recently explained in The Washington Post, "He may well be the single most corrupt major business figure in the United States of America." That corruption did not evaporate once he took the oath of office, but stuck fast to him like a kale fart in a hot car.

They will have the goods on Trump, I am mortally sure. Will they act?

For good reason, the very existence of Vice President Mike Pence is enough to derail any serious discussion of the impeachment of Donald Trump. As it stands, the man certainly serves as a potent insurance policy against Article II, Section 4.

When conversations turn to Trump's impeachment, LGBTQ activists and others have rightly raised an alarm about the acute dangers they would face from a President Pence. He could, with the right allies in Congress, push for a "religious objections" bill that legalizes discrimination against LGBTQ citizens, as he did while governor of Indiana. He might push for a bill requiring people who have abortions to hold funerals for the fetus, as he did in 2016. He might sign a bill requiring people seeking abortions to undergo two invasive trans-vaginal ultrasound procedures, as he did in 2013.

Hell yes, there is good reason for concern, and even fear. Pence is the kind of Christian evangelical zealot who would have been right at home putting "pagan" villages to the sword and torch a thousand years ago. His misogyny and homophobia are the stuff of nightmares. He is, very quietly, a darling of the right-wing moneyed elite and speaks their language fluently. Worse, as a former governor and member of the House, Pence actually knows how government works. He does not regularly dismember fellow Republicans in public, and he could easily build coalitions with the worst elements in Congress. With his knowledge and their help, they could pass legislation hateful enough to frighten the Freedom statue off the Capitol Dome.

That is now, today, tomorrow, next week and every week until November. My kid will still be eating her Halloween candy when the midterm deal goes down, and if the numbers hold or get worse for Republicans, it's going to be a whole different conversation at this year's Thanksgiving table. Sure, Pence is terrifying on a number of levels, but if the cookie crumbles just so in November, the beast will be without teeth.

There is ample precedent to support this presumption, in the guise of former President Gerald R. Ford. No historical comparison is seamless, of course, but the example of Ford is highly instructive.

After Richard Nixon resigned the presidency and fled back to California, Ford pardoned him. A few days later, he unveiled a program of conditional amnesty for Vietnam draft evaders. A year later, he presided over the US military's final, staggering exit from that war; Operation Frequent Wind was a frantic evacuation that saw helicopter gunships shoved over the sides of aircraft carriers and into the sea to make room for more refugees. Amazingly enough, Ford got Justice John Paul Stevens onto the Supreme Court. He was shot at more often than any president since George Washington.

That's pretty much it. Gerald Ford's presidential library is one room with a magazine rack and some mints in a dish. Ford didn't do nothing, but he didn't do much. Why?

There are several reasons. The long agony of Watergate, culminating in the concussion of Nixon's resignation, left the nation and the government so exhausted as to be effectively rendered powerless. With only a few scant accomplishments and no signature legislation to his name, Ford spent much of his time in office as an animated placeholder while the country tried to come to grips with what had just happened to it. Moreover, the Democrats in Congress -- cat-wary after Watergate -- watched him like a hawk. Everyone just waited for 1976, when a peanut farmer came along and sent this accidental president back home to Michigan.

As stated, no historical analogy is seamless. Ford was appointed, not elected, and the Congress of that day had yet to be infected by the rancid teachings of Supply Side Jesus. That being said, the similarities and probabilities are too obvious to ignore. If the impeachment of Donald Trump were successfully undertaken in 2019 or even 2020, the aftermath would find Mike Pence frozen like an ant in amber.

The ultimate removal of Trump would be preceded by a massive political upheaval that would leave the Republican Party on fire from stem to stern. The executive branch would be shattered and splattered, cornered into virtual immobility under the Say-No-to-Everything sway of a Democratic majority … if that Democratic majority decides to show up. Everything on the table this time, Nancy. Keep your powder dry long enough and it turns to dust.

If the proper circumstances combine to allow the removal of Donald Trump from office, President Pence will become a cipher until an election comes along to remove him. He is neither smart enough nor strong enough to overcome the forces of history that will be sluicing through the cracks in his walls. He will be a man-suit stuffed with straw. He will be nothing, and then he, too, will be gone.

So let's do this. Climb on the 'Peach Train. If you happen to believe there will soon be sufficient evidence to justify the removal of this catastrophe president, don't let Pence chase you off. He might be scary today, but if voters pull his fangs come November, it will get really interesting around here.

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Categories: News

Lawmakers Want the EPA to Ignore Impacts of Pesticides on Endangered Species

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 04:00

According to the latest push by House Republicans, pesticides -- all of them -- are so safe there's no longer any need to bother asking experts to determine their harm to our most endangered species before approving them.

It's not true, of course -- not even vaguely. It's such an outrageously anti-science statement it's laughable.

But not surprisingly, that's what pesticide makers like Dow Chemical would have us believe.

And now that's what Republicans in Congress would have us believe.

This week some of the biggest agriculture and pesticide players in Washington, D.C. -- including Croplife and Dow Chemical -- succeeded in getting Republicans to include a rider in the 2018 Farm Bill that would exempt the Environmental Protection Agency's pesticide-registration program from the most important parts of the Endangered Species Act: The provisions requiring that a pesticide's harm to endangered species be assessed and addressed before it can be approved, and the provisions that prohibit a pesticide's killing of endangered species.

That's right: If the rider remains in place, consideration for impacts on endangered species would be written out of the process of registering pesticides.

Shortly after President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt took power last year, they made it clear how little they cared about science, public health and wildlife when Pruitt reversed an EPA plan to ban Dow's chlorpyrifos from use on crops, despite troves of evidence showing that this chemical causes brain damage in children and is likely to harm imperiled species.

The troth of evidence against chlorpyrifos was so compelling that prior to Trump taking office, the EPA had found that the chemical harmed 97 percent of the nation's 1,800 endangered plants and animals.

The evidence of risk was overwhelming. Hence the EPA's plan to ban it.

But then Dow donated $1 million to Trump's inaugural fund, and the EPA simply walked away from years of research.

And now, Dow and friends are getting even more bang for their buck -- this time with House Republicans who don't seem to care how many species they drive extinct. 

It seems like Dow has really been cashing in on its D.C. spending spree over the past six years, during which the company has donated $11 million to congressional campaigns and political action committees and spent an additional $75 million lobbying Congress. 

It would be hard to overstate the dangers of this Farm Bill rider. If we don't stop it, it could not only directly fuel the extinction of many of our most endangered plants and animals -- it could eliminate one of the most important shields we have to protect all species, including humans, against highly toxic pesticides poisoning the waterways and landscapes we all depend on.

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Categories: News

Sinclair Has Thrived for So Long Under the Radar

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 14:27

Janine Jackson: The viral video of dozens of local newscasters from around the country, reciting identical scripts about "fake news," is the definition of painful irony. But what Sinclair Broadcast Group, the parent company that forced the broadcasters to parrot the words, is doing, and wants to do, is no laughing matter. Sinclair's been largely under the radar til now, though known to some as the owner that forced its stations to run a pseudo-documentary hit piece on John Kerry days before the 2004 election. The chain's Washington bureau chief resisted, told the Baltimore Sun, "I couldn't be part of this special and call it news, when what it is is political propaganda," and was promptly fired.

So what does it mean that Sinclair may acquire a station in your town next? Our next guest has been immersed in things Sinclair. Pam Vogel is a research fellow at Media Matters. She joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Pam Vogel.

Pam Vogel: Thanks for having me on.

Let's start with that video that Deadspin cut together. It's chilling in its content. People who obviously don't have any control over what they're saying, talking about "free speech" and "mind control," you know? Someone said that it looks like "hostage video," and in a way, it almost is. People need their jobs, after all. The "must-run" is a significant part of the Sinclair way, isn't it?

Yes, and this sort of scripted segment that's read by local anchors isn't necessarily typical for Sinclair. It's a little bit of an escalation, which I think is maybe why some folks are so riled up when they see this video. It does feel very eerie and disingenuous. But in addition to a sort of scripted segment like the one in that video, Sinclair regularly mandates that all of its local TV news stations run certain types of segments that they produce nationally at their headquarters near us here in DC.

So those types of must-run segments are more regularly produced. There's one called Bottom Line with Boris, and that is featuring a man named Boris Epshteyn, who used to be a Trump aide. He was hired by Sinclair a little bit after he left the White House, and his commentary segments are produced, pretty much every weekday there's a new one. They're pretty short, about 90 seconds, two minutes. And it's pretty predictable. So I watch all of them as they come out, and I already know what's going to be in them, for the most part. It's always either in agreement with President Trump, or a defense of something that Trump has done, or in a few cases -- including yesterday -- a defense of Sinclair itself, or a defense of Epshteyn's commentary segment.

And the second must-run that they typically are mandating that their stations air is called Terrorism Alert Desk. Those also are relatively short segments. They're produced about every other day, there's a new one, and those are sort of quick-hit, vague headline-reading of stories that they have determined are about terrorism. And I watched a year of those segments. And some of the things that we sort of pulled away in analysis of those segments were that they weren't very informative for viewers, but the repetition aspect of reading vague headlines about things like terror-related arrests, where we never get any follow-up information, a focus overall on terror associated with Islam -- taken all together like that, it really just serves to gin up xenophobia in local news audiences.

So I think when we talk about that context, and some of the other must-run segments Sinclair's doing, the idea of having local anchors decry "one-sided and biased news" feels even more ironic.

Really, it takes it over the top. And it's two things, because it's the content, and then it's the nature of it being must-run. There was a guy who worked briefly at a Sinclair station named Aaron Weiss, who wrote a piece for Huffington Post, and he recounted a conference call of news directors. When someone asked if they could ever run local commentary during newscasts, the answer was a firm "no." So the threat of Sinclair, the concern, is not just that it's right-wing, it's what they mean for the localism of local news, as well, isn't it?

Yes. There's a recent study out of Emory University, where the authors found that a small group of stations last year was acquired by Sinclair, and when those stations saw the transfer in ownership, that was pretty much immediately accompanied by a change in the types of news that those stations covered. So they began to cover more national stories at the expense of local stories.

Yeah, I saw that Emory research, and I thought it was interesting that they found more national politics, as opposed to local, and a slant to the right, and then they note that the results suggest a substantial "supply-side" role in these trends toward nationalization and polarization of politics news. In other words, the changes weren't responsive to viewers' tastes changing. They really just came from the ownership changing.

And this is something to keep in mind when we're talking about Sinclair, too, because they're in the middle of trying to finalize an acquisition of more media stations across the country: 42 more local TV stations, some in the largest media markets -- New York, Chicago, LA -- where they don't really currently have any stations that they control, whether it's through ownership or through operating them solely, which is part of Sinclair's MO. But this speaks to their efforts to consolidate, and they view it as a win for innovation.

But what really happens is that they're free to minimize the resources that stations need, which, again, takes away from the localism. And it can be also kind of creepy, in a way that's a little bit similar to the way that these local anchors were mandated to read those scripts. We're seeing other instances already with Sinclair stations where they're using the same local anchors broadcasting from one station in one state, and they're actually narrating nightly news segments in other states.

So it's not even really local at all at this point, and this is in a time in which local news resources are already shrinking, or already have been dwindling.

Exactly. So to be clear, in that sort of arrangement they still have some local reporters that are in the community. But the anchors at the desk are in a completely different state. So they're basically making the argument -- through the way that they're allocating those resources -- that the anchors don't matter. It just seems like overall a kind of lack of respect for journalistic integrity, for their employees.

Absolutely. Well, I did read that David Smith, the chairman of Sinclair, has quipped that Sinclair is "forever expanding, like the universe." That doesn't sound good. You just hinted toward it: They are trying now to have a huge acquisition, or an acquisition that would get them into the three biggest markets in the country. So what's in between them and that right now?

Yeah. The acquisition is waiting final approval from the FCC and from the Department of Justice, on antitrust grounds, and it's pretty much expected that both of those entities will approve the deal. They're obviously pretty aligned with the Trump administration, and President Trump has vocalized his support for Sinclair in two tweets in the last couple of days. So I don't think we're going to see any pushback there.

But one thing that is interesting is that the FCC is actually under an internal investigation right now, because they've made so many moves, regulatory and deregulatory, in the last year since they acquired a Republican majority on that commission, because of the Trump administration, to make things easier for Sinclair to see that deal through. They reinstated some outdated, wonky math for calculating ownership caps, that basically is allowing Sinclair to own an unprecedented number of stations, and reach up to 72 percent of US television households, which is completely unheard of, and wouldn't have been possible before the FCC was under Republican control.

I want to be clear: It's not like there's a Sinclair network, and that if you don't want it, you can avoid it, you know? That's part of the problem, is that there's kind of a labeling issue, as well, isn't there?

Yes, absolutely. If you're tuning in to cable news -- Fox, MSNBC, CNN -- you sort of know what you're tuning in to. You're signing up for something specific, whether it's news delivered with a particular perspective, whether it's commentators that have a national profile, and so you might know already what their background is and their approach. But with Sinclair, you don't have that same expectation. So if you're turning to your local nightly news, you might see that it's called ABC 6 or CBS 12, but you don't see a Sinclair logo anywhere on your screen.

The good news is, it's relatively easy to find out who owns your station. And that's exactly what Sinclair doesn't want folks to do. They have thrived for so long under the radar. So I think now that people are becoming aware of what they've been up to, it's important to keep that drumbeat going, and to take a little bit of time to just know who owns your station, because they're not making it very clear.

We've been speaking with Pam Vogel. She's research fellow at Media Matters. They're online at MediaMatters.org. Pam Vogel, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

Thank you.

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Categories: News

The 2018 Farm Bill's Hidden Agenda to Push Millions Off Food Stamps

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 14:20
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Last August, on the first day of an eight state, two-installment RV tour to address poverty and prosperity in rural America for the upcoming farm bill, US Department of Agriculture Secretary George "Sonny" Perdue visited the Wisconsin State Fair. 

Activities that morning included carnival rides and a listening session with farmers, which Perdue hosted alongside Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Afterward, Perdue, Walker and their families were in search of food. Walker quipped, "We'll probably find a few things on a stick."

Perdue then set out in a Class A Hurricane Thor Motor Coach (floorplans start with an MSRP value above $100,000) to meet with young farmers at a farm he called, "a feed the hunger" type farm -- in reference to the Hunger Task Force Farm south of Milwaukee. Perdue also hosted Paul Ryan in the RV later that day. They sat around a thumbnail kitchen table beneath a blank, wall-mounted LED television, before hosting a speaking event. 

Dubbed the "Back to Our Roots" tour, Perdue vowed that the "USDA will be intimately involved" with Congress in writing the next farm bill, and that the tour would put him out "on the front lines of American agriculture" and enable him to "know best what the current issues are."

His quest culminated in late January in Mifflingtown, Penn., where he presented the USDA's "2018 Farm Bill & Legislative Principles" to Pennsylvania Farm Bureau members at Reinford Farms. Perdue described the four-page document as the "roadmap" to the USDA's farm bill priorities.

The report comes as Congress has begun deliberations for the next farm bill -- what could be one of the largest non-defense funding authorizations in our nation's history. The current bill expires on September 30, and the House Ag committee could take its first votes on a new bill any day now.

The farm bill structures almost everything that governs our food system. It dictates incentives as to what is grown and what we eat. It establishes farm subsidies and trade policy. It regulates crop insurance, nutrition programs, forestry polices and conservation programs. It allocates funds for disaster relief and food assistance programs. Farm bills are passed by Congress about every four or five years.  

But what began as a strategy to restore farm purchasing power has become infamous for its history of political drama and logrolling spectacle; a chimeric piece of legislation over which a dizzying array of interests vie for their stake. Lurking behind a name that connotes pastoral innocence, lies a knotted entanglement of Congresspeople serving the interests of Big Ag and corporate lobbyists. Some experts have even decried the bill as a public health crisis. 

"No one person has a handle over the entire bill. They can't possibly do that," says Marion Nestle, former professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. "Everybody knows what a farm bill ought to do. But power politics gets involved. There were hundreds of amendments put forth for the last one. Nobody can possibly know the issues involved in them. So, it's who pushes the hardest." 

Nestle recalls how one staff member from the Senate Agricultural Committee met with an NYU class she taught on the farm bill.  The staffer admitted to the class that after eight years working with the committee, her best resources for learning what was in the bill were lobbyists.

"[Senate Agriculture Committee staff] would meet with lobbyists and lobbyists would explain what the programs were about and what they wanted, and that's how she learned it," Nestle says. In 2014, the farm bill was the sixth most lobbied piece of legislation that year.

Since the tumultuous passage of the last farm bill in 2014 (it was passed two years after the previous farm bill expired), farmers have been experiencing an economic upheaval similar to that of the 1980s

In May 2017, the National Farmers Union launched a website to address a four-year prolonged farm crisis, replete with information on disaster relief for the year's weather catastrophes, how to apply for emergency relief loans, and a suicide prevention hotline. (A 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that that people working in agriculture -- including farmers, farm laborers, ranchers, fishers, and lumber harvesters -- take their lives at a higher rate than any other occupation.)

According to Jennifer Fahy, communications director for the nonprofit organization Farm Aid, in 2017 chapter 12 bankruptcies -- farm bankruptcies -- increased at a faster rate than any other type of bankruptcy. Fahy says the Farm Aid has been receiving a record number of calls in recent years. In 2017, Farm Aid tripled the number of emergency grants made to farmers, and in 2018 they're on track to triple that number again. "Land rents are up and expenses are up and [farmers'] margins are smaller and smaller," she says. "These are people who have built their lives around their farms. When a farm goes under, it's not just the business that goes under; it's the loss of the farm and the land, and usually the family's home."

The USDA estimates that from 2009 to 2016, about 109,660 farms have disappeared, with small and midsized farms bearing the brunt of these closures. Over the past four years, net farm income has declined by an estimated 50 percent, marking the largest drop since the Great Depression. Commodity prices have taken a nosedive across the industry, with significant losses to corn, wheat, soybean, and dairy prices dipping below their post-2008-recession levels.

To address the crisis, Perdue has commandeered rhetoric of his predecessor Henry A. Wallace, Roosevelt's agriculture secretary. Perdue chairs the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, which was established by Trump in 2017, and he's donned a new mantra for the USDA: "Do Right and Feed Everyone."

The first farm bill, passed in 1933, in many ways embodied Wallace's New Deal vision. In the years leading to the Great Depression, many farm journals and farm organizations had warned farmers to control production, as ready markets and fair prices were shrinking or not available. When the economy crashed, farmers were struck swiftly and directly. As prices for commodities plummeted, farmers faced a surplus of production because  many US families were too poor to buy food. Wallace pledged that the government would buy "from those who have too much to give to those who have too little." The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 was established by Congress' to "relieve the existing National Economic Emergency by increasing agricultural purchasing power." It was the first major New Deal agricultural legislation, and was declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1936.

For farmers and farm advocates, Perdue's rhetoric has so far shown to be full of empty promises, raising great concerns with how the farm bill will proceed. Perdue has helmed something of a skeleton crew at the USDA, which is undergoing major organizational restructurings (he eliminated the Rural Development Mission Area), staff vacancies and scandal. It was not until January -- long after farm bill discussions had begun -- that the USDA appointed an official congressional liaison. As of April 12, only six of the 13 USDA positions that require Senate confirmation have been confirmed. Three are pending and the other four have no nominee. 

Farmers and farmer advocates say such administrative uncertainty and negligence has resulted in delays and impaired access for essential services during the Spring planting season, and have raised concerns about how committed the USDA will be to small farmers through the stifling political process of the farm bill. 

"The language from the administration on issues like trade and immigration have been really challenging because they're creating this climate of uncertainty that's impacting farmers," says Fahy of Farm Aid. "There's language out there that rural America is important and that the administration is going to do the right thing, but the details are missing. We have farmers calling because they can't get access to the credit they need for the operating loans to put seeds in the ground for this spring." 

In the months since Secretary Perdue's visit to the Hunger Task Force Farm, Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force, has likewise noted a significant shift in her group's relationship with the USDA.

"There seems to be a chilling effect, frankly, on the work that we've done together previously of improving the quality of the federal nutrition programs and their access at a local level," says Tussler. 

For Tussler, Perdue's visit to Wisconsin may have signaled the USDA's legislative agenda to come. When asked about food assistance programs during his trip, Perdue said at the time, "Everybody can get down on their luck. We understand that. We understand compassion is needed. But that should not be a lifestyle of dependency on the government for food."

Tussler was recently surprised to see her photo with Perdue in the 2018 report next to the section calling for strengthening work requirements for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients. "I'm holding up commodities because I'm showing him what kind of foods low-income people live on," Tussler says. "He was not terribly impressed with the powdered milk," which is one of the commodity products seniors receive through the USDA's Commodity Supplemental Foods Program. "We're at the farm, but I'm showing him commodities."

Tussler, who has been with the Hunger Task Force for 20 years, sees what has been happening in Wisconsin as foreshadowing what Congress might do with the farm bill with its largest Republican majority in Congress since 1929.

A Bureaucracy That Benefits the Rich at the Expense of the Poor 

In 2015, Wisconsin extended work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents throughout the state, requiring 80 hours of unpaid work experience a month for enrollees in order to receive FoodShare benefits -- the state's version of SNAP. As a result, Tussler says, people are required to work more than 100 hours in unpaid labor to receive an average of $105 in food assistance benefits per month. ResCare, a for-profit agency in Milwaukee that provides such employability programs for FoodShare recipients, found that only 7 percent gained employment, while 53 percent lost their benefits and were banned from the FoodShare program for three years.  

As a part of Governor Walker's plan to root out fraud in food assistance programs, he also established an Office of the Inspector General in Wisconsin. According to Tussler, recent memos internal to the OIG's welfare office in Milwaukee -- the state's largest welfare office -- report that each new case being opened was required to be marked as potential fraud. 

"We don't really have a fraud problem," Tussler says, citing Wisconsin as having one of the lowest error rates in food assistance benefits, at 2.5 percent compared with the national average of 3.6 percent. "It just shows a complete lack of understanding for how people live on food stamps." 

The crusade by conservatives to reign in anti-poverty and anti-hunger programs was poignantly on display last February when Perdue pitched the idea of supplementing SNAP with "Harvest Boxes." As part of the Trump administration's goal to slash food assistance programs by $214 billion over the next 10 years, the boxes would include "shelf-stable," low nutrition industrialized calories -- in essence the same powdered milk that made Perdue cringe at the Hunger Task Force Farm. 

Yet, what received little coverage in the media was not the proposal's blatant inability to provide healthy food, but rather the fact it's already been normalized. Since 1977, the USDA's Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations -- designed as an alternative to SNAP -- has been distributing shelf-stable processed food commodities, like apple sauce that contains no apples, to low-income Native Americans. The program has been infamous for perpetuating the "thrifty gene theory" -- the notion that falsely puts forth a biological reason as to why American Indians and Alaska Natives have a higher rate of obesity than whites and are far more likely to have Type 2 diabetes.

The effect of imposing this diet of processed food on Native communities has given rise to the phenomenon: "commod bod." As one University of Oklahoma researcher told NPR, "It makes you look a certain way when you eat these foods." It has also done little to reduce the prevalence of hunger and poverty. Today 60 percent of Native Americans living on reservations who receive food assistance through SNAP rely on the program as their primary source of food.

Efforts to block-grant the SNAP program have been proposed by House Republicans in the past -- a measure Paul Ryan has championed for years, and one that has already been implemented in Puerto Rico with disastrous effect. Such measures would eliminate the program's entitlement structure, cap spending, cut benefits and increase competition between communities for the program's resources.

Changing work requirements for SNAP eligibility would target low-income Americans already struggling to provide for themselves and their families. In 2015, nearly half of all SNAP participants (44 percent) were under age 18, while 11 percent were over the age of 60 and 10 percent were disabled nonelderly adults. Furthermore, most SNAP households already held earnings, and a majority of households did not receive cash welfare benefits. Nearly half of all SNAP participants (42 percent) held income at or below the poverty, and more than half (55 percent) of households with children already held jobs. According to the USDA, during the past 25 years, the primary form of income among SNAP participants has shifted from welfare to work. In that time, the number of SNAP households with zero net income rose more than two-fold.

"We are going to reach a point where people are not only living as a sub-class in poverty constantly, but we're going to put them at risk of not even being able to eat regularly," says Tussler.

Writing a Bill "in Secret" That Puts Commodities and Corporations First

As of mid-February, the House version of the farm bill had been drafted, but the draft had not been made public. "There is a bill out there that is supposedly being scored by the Congressional Budget Office, but nobody's seen it," said Congressman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) at a public forum in Massachusetts. According to McGovern, the bill was "being written in secret," bypassing the traditional subcommittee structure. 

Yet as the process wore on, initial rhetoric within the House Agricultural Committee of gaining a needed a bipartisan consensus had dissolved. In March, Reps. David Scott (D- GA) and Jim Costa (D-CA) sent a letter to ranking Democratic Ag committee member Rep, Collin Peterson (Calif.) asking that he abstain from all farm bill negotiations until Conaway agreed to share part of the drafted legislative text. "At no point during the Committee's 23 hearings on SNAP was there testimony in favor of radical reforms to SNAP," Scott and Costa wrote. 

By early April, House Ag Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) made the pledge of "going forward" with the farm bill in order to defend SNAP eligibility changes. On April 12, the House Ag Committee released the first draft of their bill. With mounting opposition from House Democrats, along with pressure to pass a farm bill with a Republican majority before mid-term elections this year, the new draft faces the chance of a paralyzing death on the House floor.

The drafted bill would increase the age limit of able-bodied working adults from 49 to 59, and would require individuals to work or be enrolled in a job-training program for at least 20 hours a week beginning in fiscal year 2021. By 2026, that minimum number would jump to 25 hours per week. Those who violate the work requirements could become ineligible for SNAP benefits for a 12-month period. Those who fail to meet the requirements a second time would be subject to three years of lost benefits, "unless an individual obtains employment sufficient to meet the hourly requirement or is no longer subject to the work requirements at an earlier time." Such changes could make as many as 5 to 7 million SNAP recipients subject to stricter work requirements.

And as presaged by Wisconsin's FoodShare program, the bill seeks to expand a nation-wide crackdown on purported fraud. For instance, state agencies would be allowed to use retained SNAP funds to carry out "actions to prevent fraud," while also promoting public-private partnerships,paving the way to implement programs such as ResCare and Wisconsin's FoodShare nationally. It would also expand the Duplicative Enrollment Database in order to "prevent Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants from receiving duplicative benefits in multiple states."

According to a statement, Conaway said, "The farm bill also keeps faith with these families by not only maintaining SNAP benefits but by offering SNAP beneficiaries a springboard out of poverty to a good paying job, and opportunity for a better way of life for themselves and their families."

In addition to opposition from Democrats over cuts to food assistance, Conaway faces a divided Republican Party when it comes to crop insurance, with some of the more conservative and libertarian wings of the party (as represented by the Heritage Foundation) also in support of cutting crop insurance. Paul Ryan himself claimed in 2013 that crop insurance was evidence of "crony capitalism."

"The interests of the commodity producers and the corporations outweigh the interests of low-income people, and as a result we don't end up assuring the dietary guidelines for Americans," says Tussler.

"People are supposed to get fruits and vegetables to be half their plate, but we don't get fruit and vegetables as half our supply," she says. "The process by which [fruits and vegetables] are offered and the frequency [of which they are provided] really has nothing to do with the needs of low-income people and everything to do with excesses the agricultural market and the politics of the people on the Ag Committee."

"People can't just eat canned green beans every single night for dinner," says Tussler. That is one of the reasons the Hunger Task Force established its own farm to supplement the food and emergency assistance it receives. "We're a farm ourselves," says Tussler. "That's a damn hard life."

Categories: News

Let's Go All-In on Home Care For All

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 14:10

Maine's Home Care for All ballot initiative is an example of how voters are taking the future into their own hands in these turbulent times. By ensuring that people with disabilities and older adults receive the home care they need, while creating good paying jobs for caregivers, Mainers are taking steps to construct a society they want.

 JGI / Tom Grill / Getty Images)(Photo: JGI / Tom Grill / Getty Images)

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Today, there is as much to assist as there is to resist.

Creation counters destruction. In this turbulent political climate, the dismantling of our democracy must be countered with the construction of a society that reflects our values and imagines the future that we want, not the one we're being handed. And there are so many of us who are doing just that.

At Caring Across Generations, a national campaign to support caregiving in the 21st century, the values we believe in are care, interdependence and dignity. This means caring for our older generations, who are living longer than ever before due to advances in modern medicine and technology. It means recognizing and nurturing their interdependence with the caregivers -- whether family members or professionals -- whose love and hard work enable older people to age in place and connected to community. And all of our work is grounded in fighting for our collective dignity. We fight with and for caregiving families that are struggling to make ends meet, as parents support elders and children while holding down jobs. And we fight with and for people with disabilities, who deserve independence and support, and on whose decades of activism we are building on for a more caring future.

The dismantling of our democracy must be countered with the construction of a society that reflects our values and imagines the future that we want, not the one we're being handed.

That is why we have teamed up with Maine People's Alliance, a statewide membership organization of diverse Mainers, to imagine Home Care for All, a ballot initiative that would establish a home care trust fund to allow aging Mainers to stay at home, support family caregivers and invest in care jobs becoming good jobs.

For decades, our caregiving systems have not served the needs of working families. There are over 100 million Americans who are directly affected by the need for better family care. Family caregivers alone number 44 million in the United States, from all walks of life, income levels, educational backgrounds and ages. The caregiving workforce is around 3 million people, mostly women making poverty wages. In 2015, there were 19 million people under the age of 65 and 14 million over 65 who needed this kind of care. Then you have caregivers in assisted living facilities, family members coordinating care from afar or helping to pay for a loved one's care. Add up all these numbers, and almost one out of every three Americans is in this Caring Majority.

With a growing older population and growing numbers of people who need assistance with managing chronic illnesses, or simple activities of daily life, the need for elder care, particularly in the home, is exploding. Whereas, in many communities, caregiving was once mainly done by the women of the family who were expected to stay at home, today more than 70 percent of children in the US are growing up in households where all the adults work outside of the home. Plus, there's now a growing segment of our workforce that is sandwiched between managing the care of their children and their parents while working. (These workers are often referred to as the "sandwich generation.")

Home Care for All is an example of how voters are taking the future into their own hands at the state level this year.

For their own part, the caregiving workers that we rely upon to help support the care needs of families are faced with pressures of their own. Poverty wages, lack of access to benefits or a safety net, along with unpredictable or long hours all lead to high rates of turnover, and the instability of the workforce contributes to the overall insecurity of families who struggle to ensure their loved ones can age with dignity. Despite the home care workforce being the fastest growing workforce in the economy, the annual median income is just $13,000.

Home Care For All would make home care available to all Mainers. The fund would be governed by a board that includes representatives of all key stakeholder groups: personal care agencies; individual providers (who work independently or for a home care agency); and people receiving in-home care, or family members or guardians of such individuals. The fund would be paid for by partially closing a payroll and unearned income tax loophole for those with incomes over $127,000, as well as a small employer contribution, and would be accessible to all Mainers with disabilities or older adults who need assistance with one or more activity of daily living.

This is an opportunity to significantly address a real crisis facing millions of people in the US and to create a society that reflects our values. Rarely do we have policies that directly reflect what people need. The members of Maine People's Alliance, together with a strong coalition of stakeholder groups in the state, are working together to ensure that the solution addresses everyone's needs. Volunteers who collected signatures talked to voters in community centers, schools and transportation hubs, and shared stories of encountering family caregivers who wept when they heard of the measure.

Beyond its election outcomes, this is a year in which to model our political aspirations for the future.

Home Care for All is an example of how voters are taking the future into their own hands at the state level this year. On January 26, 2018, retirees, veterans, family caregivers and home care workers gathered in Augusta, Maine, to announce the submission of more than 67,000 signatures to Maine's Secretary of State to place this citizens' initiative on the November ballot. They are showing us that this year in US politics can be what we make it. They're expanding what's possible not only for Mainers, but for all of us. Which state is next?

The stakes are high in the midterm election year. But beyond its election outcomes, this is a year in which to model our political aspirations for the future. What are the policy solutions that embody the systems and frameworks that will create equity and opportunity in the future? Who are the candidates that embody the values of a healthy, multiracial democracy for the 21st century? Who or what are we waiting for?

The solutions and the leaders we need are already among us.

Categories: News

To Be a Survivor in a Nation of Embedded Racism: Black Lives Matter

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 04:00

Vividly and trenchantly, Patrisse Khan-Cullors -- with the assistance of asha bendele -- draws on her personal experience to convey how Black communities are under systemic attack. In this excerpt of When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, she writes of a precarious life caught between the police, poverty and prejudice.

 Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors speaks to people gathered at Pershing Square in Los Angeles, California. People gathered to protest the death of a homeless man killed by police March 1, 2015. (Photo: Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A compelling memoir from a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. Get When They Call You a Terrorist now from Truthout. Click here now.

Vividly and trenchantly, Patrisse Khan-Cullors -- with the assistance of asha bendele -- draws on her personal experience to convey how Black communities are under systemic attack. In compelling prose, she makes a cogent case for why Black lives are under siege by a deeply embedded racism. The following is her introduction to When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. She writes of a precarious life caught between the police, poverty and prejudice.

INTRODUCTION: We Are Stardust

I write to keep in contact with our ancestors and to spread truth to people. —Sonia Sanchez

Days after the elections of 2016, asha sent me a link to a talk by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. We have to have hope, she says to me across 3,000 miles, she in Brooklyn, me in Los Angeles. We listen together as Dr. deGrasse Tyson explains that the very atoms and molecules in our bodies are traceable to the crucibles in the centers of stars that once upon a time exploded into gas clouds. And those gas clouds formed other stars and those stars possessed the divine-right mix of properties needed to create not only planets, including our own, but also people, including us, me and her. He is saying that not only are we in the universe, but that the universe is in us. He is saying that we, human beings, are literally made out of stardust.

And I know when I hear Dr. deGrasse Tyson say this that he is telling the truth because I have seen it since I was a child, the magic, the stardust we are, in the lives of the people I come from.

I watched it in the labor of my mother, a Jehovah's Witness and a woman who worked two and sometimes three jobs at a time, keeping other people's children, working the reception desks at gyms, telemarketing, doing anything and everything for 16 hours a day the whole of my childhood in the Van Nuys barrio where we lived. My mother, cocoa brown and smooth, disowned by her family for the children she had as a very young and unmarried woman. My mother, never giving up despite never making a living wage.

I saw it in the thin, brown face of my father, a boy out of Cajun country, a wounded healer, whose addictions were borne of a world that did not love him and told him so not once but constantly. My father, who always came back, who never stopped trying to be a version of himself there were no mirrors for.

And I knew it because I am the thirteenth-generation progeny of a people who survived the hulls of slave ships, survived the chains, the whips, the months laying in their own shit and piss. The human beings legislated as not human beings who watched their names, their languages, their Goddesses and Gods, the arc of their dances and beats of their songs, the majesty of their dreams, their very families snatched up and stolen, disassembled and discarded, and despite this built language and honored God and created movement and upheld love. What could they be but stardust, these people who refused to die, who refused to accept the idea that their lives did not matter, that their children's lives did not matter?

Our foreparents imagined our families out of whole cloth. They imagined each individual one of us. They imagined me. They had to. It is the only way I am here, today, a mother and a wife, a community organizer and Queer, an artist and a dreamer learning to find hope while navigating the shadows of hell even as I know it might have been otherwise.

I was not expected or encouraged to survive. My brothers and little sister, my family -- the one I was born into and the one I created -- were not expected to survive. We lived a precarious life on the tightrope of poverty bordered at each end with the politics of personal responsibility that Black pastors and then the first Black president preached -- they preached that more than they preached a commitment to collective responsibility.

They preached it more than they preached about what it meant to be the world's wealthiest nation and yet the place with extraordinary unemployment, an extraordinary lack of livable wages and an extraordinary disruption of basic opportunity.

And they preached that more than they preached about America having 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prison population, a population which for a long time included my disabled brother and gentle father who never raised a hand to another human being. And a prison population that, with extraordinary deliberation, today excludes the man who shot and killed a 17-year-old boy who was carrying Skittles and iced tea.

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There was a petition that was drafted and circulated all the way to the White House. It said we were terrorists. We, who in response to the killing of that child, said Black Lives Matter. The document gained traction during the first week of July 2016 after a week of protests against the back-to-back police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minneapolis. At the end of that week, on July 7, in Dallas, Texas, a sniper opened fire during a Black Lives Matter protest that was populated with mothers and fathers who brought their children along to proclaim: We have a right to live.

The sniper, identified as 25-year-old Micah Johnson, an Army reservist home from Afghanistan, holed up in a building on the campus of El Centro College after killing five police officers and wounding eleven others, including two protesters. And in the early morning hours of July 8, 2016, he became the first individual ever to be blown up by local law enforcement. They used a military-grade bomb against Micah Johnson and programmed a robot to deliver it to him. No jury, no trial. No patience like the patience shown the killers who gunned down nine worshippers in Charleston, or moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado.

Of course, we will never know what his motivations really were and we will never know if he was mentally unstable. We will only know for sure that the single organization to which he ever belonged was the U.S. Army. And we will remember that the white men who were mass killers, in Aurora and Charleston, were taken alive and one was fed fast food on the way to jail. We will remember that most of the cops who are killed in this nation are killed by white men who are taken alive.

And we will experience all the ways the ghost of Micah Johnson will be weaponized against Black Lives Matter, will be weaponized against me, a tactic from the way back that has continuously been used against people who challenge white supremacy. We will remember that Nelson Mandela remained on the FBI's list of terrorists until 2008.

Even still, the accusation of being a terrorist is devastating, and I allow myself space to cry quietly as I lie in bed on a Sunday morning listening to a red-faced, hysterical Rudolph Giuliani spit lies about us three days after Dallas.

Like many of the people who embody our movement, I have lived my life between the twin terrors of poverty and the police. Coming of age in the drug war climate that was ratcheted up by Ronald Reagan and then Bill Clinton, the neighborhood where I lived and loved and the neighborhoods where many of the members of Black Lives Matter have lived and loved were designated war zones and the enemy was us.

The fact that more white people have always used and sold drugs than Black and Brown people and yet when we close our eyes and think of a drug seller or user the face most of us see is Black or Brown tells you what you need to know if you cannot readily imagine how someone can be doing no harm and yet be harassed by police. Literally breathing while Black became cause for arrest -- or worse.

I carry the memory of living under that terror -- the terror of knowing that I, or any member of my family, could be killed with impunity -- in my blood, my bones, in every step I take.

And yet I was called a terrorist.

The members of our movement are called terrorists.

We -- me, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi -- the three women who founded Black Lives Matter, are called terrorists.

We, the people.

We are not terrorists.

I am not a terrorist.

I am Patrisse Marie Khan-Cullors Brignac.

I am a survivor.

I am stardust.

Copyright (2017) by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bendele. Not to be reproduced without permission of the publisher, St. Martin's Press.

Categories: News

A Stampede of Scandals

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 04:00
Categories: News

The US's #1 Weapons Salesman: Trump Promotes US Arms Manufacturers and Weakens Export Rules

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 04:00

A new exposé by Reuters reveals how the Trump administration plans to make the US an even larger weapons exporter by loosening restrictions on the sale of equipment ranging from fighter jets and drones to warships and artillery. Reuters reveals that the new initiative will provide guidelines that could allow more countries to be granted faster deal approvals, and will call on Cabinet officials to help close deals between foreign governments and US defense contractors. In one example, Reuters reveals President Trump himself urged the emir of Kuwait, in a telephone call, to finalize a $10 billion fighter jet deal with Boeing, the country's second-largest defense contractor. The exposé details the role US Cabinet officials may be asked to play in pushing arms exports abroad as part of the new initiative, which will call for a "whole of government" approach -- from the president and his Cabinet to military attachés and diplomats -- to help draw in billions of dollars more in arms business overseas. The Trump administration is expected to announce the new rules as early as Thursday. We speak to Mike Stone of Reuters and William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: News

Unlimited Worldwide War: ACLU Warns Senate Against Giving Trump Blank Check to Declare War

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 04:00

The New York Times is reporting President Trump launched airstrikes against Syria on Friday despite opposition from his own defense secretary, James Mattis, who wanted Trump to first get congressional approval. Meanwhile, a number of lawmakers have described the strikes on Syria as illegal since Trump did not seek congressional input or authorization.This comes as Congress is considering rewriting the war powers granted to the president after the September 11 attacks -- what's known as the AUMF, or Authorization for Use of Military Force. On September 14, 2001, the current AUMF passed the Senate 98-0 and 420-1 in the House, with California Democrat Barbara Lee casting the sole dissenting vote. Since then, it's been used by Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump to justify at least 37 military operations in 14 countries -- many of which were entirely unrelated to 9/11. On Monday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, and Democratic committee member Tim Kaine of Virginia introduced legislation to replace the AUMFs with a new one. Corker and Kaine claim their legislation would strengthen congressional oversight. But critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, warn the proposed legislation would actually expand the authority of President Trump and all future presidents to engage in worldwide war without limitations. For more, we're joined by Faiz Shakir, national policy director for the ACLU.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: News

Anticipating a Crush: In Prison, Tact Teams Declare Uneven War

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 04:00

Orange Crush -- or the tact team, as they're called officially -- is the Illinois Department of Correction's most oppressive armed wing. They are bullies dressed in riot gear who kick you when you're down, both figuratively and literally. These are usually big white guys with insecurities, poor communication skills and a power complex that makes for a horrible mix.

 Rafael Belincanta / EyeEm / Getty Images)(Photo: Rafael Belincanta / EyeEm / Getty Images)

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About 7:45 am on Tuesday, January 17, 2017, I muster the energy to get out of bed and walk the step to the sink from the bottom bunk and I hear it. Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk. "Shit!" I say to myself as my cellmate and I look at each other wide-eyed. We know that sound anywhere. That's three-foot-long, two-inch diameter solid wood batons hitting the steel bars as "Orange Crush" runs down the gallery clunking every bar along the way as they yell. Though it's not our cell house, it's E House right behind us. We're able to hear them through the utility alley that the cell houses share behind the cells. They're making their rounds due to an unauthorized pair of headphones found during a cell search in another cell house. 

We've already been on lockdown since Sunday afternoon here at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison in Joliet, Illinois. That means nomovement unless it's a medical emergency, and then that means dead. So, we're confined to a space with a toilet, absent a shower and a bunkbed, also known as a 7 x 10-foot concrete cell. 

Orange Crush -- or the tact team, as they're called officially -- is the Illinois Department of Correction's (IDOC) most oppressive armed wing. They are bullies dressed in riot gear who kick you when you're down, both figuratively and literally. These are usually big white guys with insecurities, poor communication skills and a power complex that makes for a horrible mix. Their outfits consist of a one-piece orange jumpsuit, a protector vest, elbow and knee pads, boots, and gloves -- all black -- with a helmet with a face shield. They carry a solid wood baton, a shield about half the size of one of them (usually only used for cell extractions) and a can of chemical agent on their hip that will bring you to your knees when sprayed. Many of their helmets have skulls and crossbones, blacked-out American flags and other military insignia as if they're going to war and we're the enemy.

When it comes to dealing with Orange Crush, prisoners are strip searched and fully restrained in handcuffs and/or shackles. If the inmate is "non-complaint," well, that's where the name "crush" comes from -- because that's when they have their fun crushing you, six of them with chemical agent, shield and baton. It's a battle you can't win, period. 

Imagine your most precious items being thrown away by someone who couldn't care less.

The IDOC uses these orange bullies for many things, but typically for punishment and retaliation. For example, IDOC will enlist the tact team to "shakedown" an entire facility after an incident. These shakedowns are the worst. No one likes them. They are dehumanizing and painful, to say the least. Imagine having everything you own being searched through, including your body. Everything tossed around, ripped, broken, stomped on, mixed in with your cellmates or neighbor's belongings, discarded as garbage. Pictures of loved ones, bedding, letters, clothing, books, important legal documents all scattered and thrown around.  It's a horrible experience I wouldn't wish on anybody. I know that if Orange Crush is in E House today, then that means they'll be over here in the next day or so, banging on my bars and screaming out orders.

So, as the whole cell house now anticipates the impending tsunami, I try to prepare myself as best as possible. Immediately opening the larger of the two suitcase size boxes I am forced to live out of, I start trying to condense all of my belonging by throwing out what I can spare. I pour out all my liquid bottles so they won't pour them on my papers or bedding. I untie my TV from the metal bars of my bunkbed (that's how I hold it up since there are no shelves here) so they won't tear it down and break it. I make sure all my food is new and unopened and not in the wrong bag or container. But I know all of this may be in vain since Orange Crush can and will take what they want with no logical reason and there is no recourse whatsoever. No shakedown is the same as the last; it's always different. One time it's okay to have something; the next time it's not.  

Wednesday, about 4:00 am, I hear the sounds of toilets flushing and quiet talking much more than usual. I try to lay back down and stay asleep until 6:00 am, but my mind won't let me. I periodically wake up every 30 minutes until then. As I get up again, I start my routine. I drink a small shot of coffee and a little water to wake me up, but not too much. If they come today, we could be stuck handcuffed in the chow hall for three to six hours, and last time, some guys ended up going on themselves because we weren't allowed to use the bathroom. I brush my teeth and make a joke to my neighbor, trying to lighten the mood. Recalling the last time Orange Crush came, maybe six months ago, I remind him -- and myself -- that they didn't do C House. So maybe, just maybe, we'll get lucky this time and they won't hit us. Then I make sure to use the washroom because all the water in the building will be shut off. This means that even after we're brought back to our cells following an Orange Crush shakedown, we won't be able to flush the toilet for at least a few more hours. That means no drinking, washing hands or using the toilet. 

As time edges closer to 7:30 am, I hear someone yell out, "Plumbers in the building," indicating that the water will probably be shut off and after that, they'll be here. I flush my toilet and push my water as I pace back and forth from the bars at the front of the cell, looking out the mirror that I that I set up on the cell door so I can watch the gallery. I'm already four flights up so it's hot, but the impending anxiety of waiting makes me sweat even more. I have my clothes and shoes laid out by the bars for the strip search. I sip a little water as I continue to pace. Neither my cell mate nor I say a word as we listen for our jail house P.A. system of guys who yell out what they can see. "They're on the walk," someone says, meaning they're in front of the cell house but not coming for us. I push the water again to make sure it is still on. They are going to C House. We manage to dodge the bullet today.  

Not long after that, we can see out the window on the far wall of the cell house by the cat walk. Prisoners from C-house in rows of two -- Black and Brown men all handcuffed with their heads down are being escorted by a third row of faux soldiers wielding batons in orange and black riot gear. We count 93 in all.  

The men are forced to wait in the chow hall for six hours. We watch from our cells, and see bag after bag of prisoners' property being taken, everything from TVs to shower shoes to cassette tapes. Shaking my head, I think to myself, I hope they don't do me like that.

Later that night, we hear the horror stories of all the things taken from the guys in C and E Houses. We try to make light of it by thinking, "Well, I don't have that much stuff." I think how some of these men, myself included, have been confined to these cells for 20 years or more, and some will be here for the rest of their lives. Forced to live out of what amounts to two suitcases, saving obituaries of loved ones, pictures of funerals and weddings, and the last letters they wrote. These are the only things we have to remember them by. Imagine your most precious items being thrown away by someone who couldn't care less, or members of the so-called tact team looking at pictures of your wife or girlfriend making dirty remarks. They'll eat your food, leaving the remnants behind as if to say, "Fuck you, this is my shit." They've ripped my bed coverings off, dumped an ashtray on my pillow case and sheets, and stomped on them, leaving their boot marks all over. They've stuck objects in my peanut butter. This is the type of treatment we experience during these times. Just another reminder that we've been demoted from the human race.  

Thursday morning is the same routine. I know they have to be coming today. I'm up again early, pacing back and forth, clothes ready. The whole cell house up. "Plumbers in the building," someone yells. But somehow, we dodge a bullet again. I watch them march to C House again. This time, I watch as three galleries get taken out for another six hours. I dread the impending torture and secretly wish it had already passed because the wait is killing me. Waking up so early, not being able to fully rest really does something to your mental stability. Locked in a small room with another man, both of us easily agitated as we await our turn at being shaken down, isn't a good situation for anyone. My cell mate and I wince as we watch bags of property being taken out of C House. 

That day as these faux soldiers leave, as if to put an exclamation point on their "fuck you," they march extra hard as they sing some military cadence, stomping and yelling loud enough so both cell houses can hear, as if they are soldiers congregating after a day of battle. They seem to take pleasure in the anger and anxiety they are generating, which only adds insult to injury in an already hostile environment. Apparently, we are the enemy defeated on the most uneven playing field ever designed.   

As I hear this faux war cry, I think maybe they're done. They skipped C House last time, so maybe they'll skip us again. The uncertainty makes me apprehensive and tense. For two days, they've faked us out, and I can't relax. Friday morning slowly creeps in, and once again, I'm up early with the same routine, hoping maybe we will escape this time. I figure if we make it past Friday, we should be free and clear. But as I'm pacing the floor I hear it: "Plumbers in the building." At 7:40 am, our water is turned off. I'm standing at the door, watching the gallery with my mirror, waiting. I know it's coming. "Tact team in the cell house," someone yells out. My mind races, thinking, Did I properly dispose of and pack everything? Did I forget anything?Right as my thoughts are racing, I hear it: Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, with all of them simultaneously yelling, but I can't make out anything they're barking out.    

They run past my cell, one after another, banging their batons on the bars all the way down the gallery from the first to the last cell, 29 in all. As they line up in front of every cell, the two in front of mine tell my cellmate to "cuff up" and face the back of the cell. I am strip searched. No matter how many times I've been stripped and searched, it's still a humiliating experience. I'm comfortable in my own skin, but that doesn't come into my thought process as I'm being forced to disrobe. Afterward, I'm handcuffed and told to face the back as my cellmate goes through the same process. The cell doors all open at once and as we're being told to back out of the cell. The officer grabs me by the cuffs.

Apparently, we are the enemy defeated on the most uneven playing field ever designed.

I'm led into a line with everyone else down the gallery. I walk in formation with a faux soldier in front of me and behind me. The line goes on like this: faux soldier, inmate, faux soldier, inmate, and so on. When I hit the end of the gallery, there is a gauntlet of Orange Crush wielding batons lining the stairwell trying to look as mean and tough as possible. Some of them look funny, but laughing will get you screamed at and possibly physically hurt, so holding it in is your best option.  There's a psychological chess match going on. I can't let them know that they intimidate or scare me in any way because then they will know they've gotten to me, that their tactics work.  

As we're led out of the building into a corridor leading to the chow hall, we're told to stop. In front of me, I see the backs of Black and Brown men; to the left of me, a line of large white men face us in their orange and black gear, smacking their batons in their hands, waiting to pounce at any false move. This really puts the "us vs. them" mentality into perspective. Reminiscent of a time when Black people couldn't look white men in their eyes, we're yelled at to "keep your heads down." I think maybe it's hard for some of them to look us in the face because they know this is inhumane treatment and wrong.  

We're eventually led into the chow hall and told to sit. One of them tells us not to talk, threatening us with being transferred to a downstate prison. Really, I think, you don't want me to talk while I sit here for the next few hours? This is absurd. I sit silently, all the while picturing what they're doing to my property in the cell.

We wait for three hours, which is short compared to what C House endured. The walk back is just as grueling as the walk from our cells, only now I anticipate all my things being thrown about, potentially destroyed, and most definitely in disarray.  

Back up the four flights, down the gallery and I walk back into the cell. As I'm uncuffed, I realize that I'm relieved that at least it's over. Now, I'll pick through the mess and figure out how to put the pieces back together. I hear guys voicing their discontent over missing items, and I hope nothing is missing from my property.  

No matter how many times we have had to go through this, it's never something I want to endure again. There is no way this is normal. I'm sure some might argue that Orange Crush is a necessary security measure. To them, I would say that when and if an incident occurs, the individuals involved are almost always sent to another facility immediately. So they aren't the ones who are subjected to this dehumanizing ritual of retaliation and punishment. 

As the weekend comes and goes, I look forward to the lockdown being lifted and to the norms of prison life. Going to yard, access to the limited library, visits. But as I rise early on Monday and walk to the sink, I can't believe my ears. Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk. "Shit." My heart drops to my stomach. They're back.

This article was co-published with The Praxis Center.

Categories: News

Taking Aim at Corporate Impunity, Sanders' Bill Would Hold Big Pharma Execs Behind Opioid Crisis Accountable

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 04:00

 Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)Sen. Bernie Sanders attends a Senate Budget Committee hearing on February 13, 2018, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)

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While President Donald Trump attempts to place blame for the enduring opioid addiction crisis on immigrants, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) announced Tuesday that he would introduce legislation to take aim at those who drug policy experts agree are truly behind the epidemic that kills tens of thousands of Americans per year -- pharmaceutical companies and executives.

"At a time when local, state and federal governments are spending many billions of dollars a year dealing with the impact of the opioid epidemic, we must hold the pharmaceutical companies and executives that created the crisis accountable," said Sanders in a statement.

The bill (pdf) would threaten Big Pharma executives with at least 10 years in prison should their companies be found guilty of contributing to the opioid crisis through manipulative marketing practices. Executives would also face fines equal to their total compensation packages, while companies would be fined $7.8 billion -- one-tenth of the annual cost of the public health epidemic, according to government estimates.

Under the legislation, companies would be required to clearly state that opioids are addictive in any marketing materials for the drugs, which include popular brands including OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet.

The roots of the opioid crisis are traced back to the 1990s, when Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, began marketing the drug as safe for long-term use for chronic pain, denying that prescription opioids -- which are chemically similar to heroin -- had highly addictive properties.

After opioid painkiller prescriptions skyrocketed as a result, the rate of overdose began to rise as well, with opioid overdoses killing at least 63,000 Americans in 2016.

In Ohio next year, Purdue is one of several drug companies that will face a jury trial over a lawsuit accusing them of "deceptively marketing opioids" and alleging distributors "ignored red flags indicating the painkillers were being diverted for improper uses."

But Sanders noted that no company has truly been held liable for the epidemic, which Purdue alone has make tens of billions of dollars off of in recent years:

In 2007, Purdue Pharma...pled guilty and agreed to pay more than $600 million in fines for misleading the public about the risks of the drug. But the company still made $22 billion off of the drug in the past decade.

"We know that pharmaceutical companies lied about the addictive impacts of opioids they manufactured," said Sanders. "They knew how dangerous these products were but refused to tell doctors and patients. Yet, while some of these companies have made billions each year in profits, not one of them has been held fully accountable for its role in an epidemic that is killing tens of thousands of Americans every year."

Categories: News

Anticipating a Crush: In Prison, Tact Teams Declare Uneven War

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 04:00

Orange Crush -- or the tact team, as they're called officially -- is the Illinois Department of Correction's (IDOC) most oppressive armed wing. They are bullies dressed in riot gear who kick you when you're down, both figuratively and literally. These are usually big white guys with insecurities, poor communication skills and a power complex that makes for a horrible mix.

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About 7:45 am on Tuesday, January 17, 2017, I muster the energy to get out of bed and walk the step to the sink from the bottom bunk and I hear it. Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk. "Shit!" I say to myself as my cellmate and I look at each other wide-eyed. We know that sound anywhere. That's three-foot-long, two-inch diameter solid wood batons hitting the steel bars as "Orange Crush" runs down the gallery clunking every bar along the way as they yell. Though it's not our cell house, it's E House right behind us. We're able to hear them through the utility alley that the cell houses share behind the cells. They're making their rounds due to an unauthorized pair of headphones found during a cell search in another cell house. 

We've already been on lockdown since Sunday afternoon here at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison in Joliet, Illinois. That means nomovement unless it's a medical emergency, and then that means dead. So, we're confined to a space with a toilet, absent a shower and a bunkbed, also known as a 7 x 10-foot concrete cell. 

Orange Crush -- or the tact team, as they're called officially -- is the Illinois Department of Correction's (IDOC) most oppressive armed wing. They are bullies dressed in riot gear who kick you when you're down, both figuratively and literally. These are usually big white guys with insecurities, poor communication skills and a power complex that makes for a horrible mix. Their outfits consist of a one-piece orange jumpsuit, a protector vest, elbow and knee pads, boots, and gloves -- all black -- with a helmet with a face shield. They carry a solid wood baton, a shield about half the size of one of them (usually only used for cell extractions) and a can of chemical agent on their hip that will bring you to your knees when sprayed. Many of their helmets have skulls and crossbones, blacked-out American flags and other military insignia as if they're going to war and we're the enemy.

When it comes to dealing with Orange Crush, prisoners are strip searched and fully restrained in handcuffs and/or shackles. If the inmate is "non-complaint," well, that's where the name "crush" comes from -- because that's when they have their fun crushing you, six of them with chemical agent, shield and baton. It's a battle you can't win, period. 

Imagine your most precious items being thrown away by someone who couldn't care less.

The IDOC uses these orange bullies for many things, but typically for punishment and retaliation. For example, IDOC will enlist the tact team to "shakedown" an entire facility after an incident. These shakedowns are the worst. No one likes them. They are dehumanizing and painful, to say the least. Imagine having everything you own being searched through, including your body. Everything tossed around, ripped, broken, stomped on, mixed in with your cellmates or neighbor's belongings, discarded as garbage. Pictures of loved ones, bedding, letters, clothing, books, important legal documents all scattered and thrown around.  It's a horrible experience I wouldn't wish on anybody. I know that if Orange Crush is in E House today, then that means they'll be over here in the next day or so, banging on my bars and screaming out orders.

So, as the whole cell house now anticipates the impending tsunami, I try to prepare myself as best as possible. Immediately opening the larger of the two suitcase size boxes I am forced to live out of, I start trying to condense all of my belonging by throwing out what I can spare. I pour out all my liquid bottles so they won't pour them on my papers or bedding. I untie my TV from the metal bars of my bunkbed (that's how I hold it up since there are no shelves here) so they won't tear it down and break it. I make sure all my food is new and unopened and not in the wrong bag or container. But I know all of this may be in vain since Orange Crush can and will take what they want with no logical reason and there is no recourse whatsoever. No shakedown is the same as the last; it's always different. One time it's okay to have something; the next time it's not.  

Wednesday, about 4:00 am, I hear the sounds of toilets flushing and quiet talking much more than usual. I try to lay back down and stay asleep until 6:00 am, but my mind won't let me. I periodically wake up every 30 minutes until then. As I get up again, I start my routine. I drink a small shot of coffee and a little water to wake me up, but not too much. If they come today, we could be stuck handcuffed in the chow hall for three to six hours, and last time, some guys ended up going on themselves because we weren't allowed to use the bathroom. I brush my teeth and make a joke to my neighbor, trying to lighten the mood. Recalling the last time Orange Crush came, maybe six months ago, I remind him -- and myself -- that they didn't do C House. So maybe, just maybe, we'll get lucky this time and they won't hit us. Then I make sure to use the washroom because all the water in the building will be shut off. This means that even after we're brought back to our cells following an Orange Crush shakedown, we won't be able to flush the toilet for at least a few more hours. That means no drinking, washing hands or using the toilet. 

As time edges closer to 7:30 am, I hear someone yell out, "Plumbers in the building," indicating that the water will probably be shut off and after that, they'll be here. I flush my toilet and push my water as I pace back and forth from the bars at the front of the cell, looking out the mirror that I that I set up on the cell door so I can watch the gallery. I'm already four flights up so it's hot, but the impending anxiety of waiting makes me sweat even more. I have my clothes and shoes laid out by the bars for the strip search. I sip a little water as I continue to pace. Neither my cell mate nor I say a word as we listen for our jail house P.A. system of guys who yell out what they can see. "They're on the walk," someone says, meaning they're in front of the cell house but not coming for us. I push the water again to make sure it is still on. They are going to C House. We manage to dodge the bullet today.  

Not long after that, we can see out the window on the far wall of the cell house by the cat walk. Prisoners from C-house in rows of two -- Black and Brown men all handcuffed with their heads down are being escorted by a third row of faux soldiers wielding batons in orange and black riot gear. We count 93 in all.  

The men are forced to wait in the chow hall for six hours. We watch from our cells, and see bag after bag of prisoners' property being taken, everything from TVs to shower shoes to cassette tapes. Shaking my head, I think to myself, I hope they don't do me like that.

Later that night, we hear the horror stories of all the things taken from the guys in C and E Houses. We try to make light of it by thinking, "Well, I don't have that much stuff." I think how some of these men, myself included, have been confined to these cells for 20 years or more, and some will be here for the rest of their lives. Forced to live out of what amounts to two suitcases, saving obituaries of loved ones, pictures of funerals and weddings, and the last letters they wrote. These are the only things we have to remember them by. Imagine your most precious items being thrown away by someone who couldn't care less, or members of the so-called tact team looking at pictures of your wife or girlfriend making dirty remarks. They'll eat your food, leaving the remnants behind as if to say, "Fuck you, this is my shit." They've ripped my bed coverings off, dumped an ashtray on my pillow case and sheets, and stomped on them, leaving their boot marks all over. They've stuck objects in my peanut butter. This is the type of treatment we experience during these times. Just another reminder that we've been demoted from the human race.  

Thursday morning is the same routine. I know they have to be coming today. I'm up again early, pacing back and forth, clothes ready. The whole cell house up. "Plumbers in the building," someone yells. But somehow, we dodge a bullet again. I watch them march to C House again. This time, I watch as three galleries get taken out for another six hours. I dread the impending torture and secretly wish it had already passed because the wait is killing me. Waking up so early, not being able to fully rest really does something to your mental stability. Locked in a small room with another man, both of us easily agitated as we await our turn at being shaken down, isn't a good situation for anyone. My cell mate and I wince as we watch bags of property being taken out of C House. 

That day as these faux soldiers leave, as if to put an exclamation point on their "fuck you," they march extra hard as they sing some military cadence, stomping and yelling loud enough so both cell houses can hear, as if they are soldiers congregating after a day of battle. They seem to take pleasure in the anger and anxiety they are generating, which only adds insult to injury in an already hostile environment. Apparently, we are the enemy defeated on the most uneven playing field ever designed.   

As I hear this faux war cry, I think maybe they're done. They skipped C House last time, so maybe they'll skip us again. The uncertainty makes me apprehensive and tense. For two days, they've faked us out, and I can't relax. Friday morning slowly creeps in, and once again, I'm up early with the same routine, hoping maybe we will escape this time. I figure if we make it past Friday, we should be free and clear. But as I'm pacing the floor I hear it: "Plumbers in the building." At 7:40 am, our water is turned off. I'm standing at the door, watching the gallery with my mirror, waiting. I know it's coming. "Tact team in the cell house," someone yells out. My mind races, thinking, Did I properly dispose of and pack everything? Did I forget anything?Right as my thoughts are racing, I hear it: Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, with all of them simultaneously yelling, but I can't make out anything they're barking out.    

They run past my cell, one after another, banging their batons on the bars all the way down the gallery from the first to the last cell, 29 in all. As they line up in front of every cell, the two in front of mine tell my cellmate to "cuff up" and face the back of the cell. I am strip searched. No matter how many times I've been stripped and searched, it's still a humiliating experience. I'm comfortable in my own skin, but that doesn't come into my thought process as I'm being forced to disrobe. Afterward, I'm handcuffed and told to face the back as my cellmate goes through the same process. The cell doors all open at once and as we're being told to back out of the cell. The officer grabs me by the cuffs.

Apparently, we are the enemy defeated on the most uneven playing field ever designed.

I'm led into a line with everyone else down the gallery. I walk in formation with a faux soldier in front of me and behind me. The line goes on like this: faux soldier, inmate, faux soldier, inmate, and so on. When I hit the end of the gallery, there is a gauntlet of Orange Crush wielding batons lining the stairwell trying to look as mean and tough as possible. Some of them look funny, but laughing will get you screamed at and possibly physically hurt, so holding it in is your best option.  There's a psychological chess match going on. I can't let them know that they intimidate or scare me in any way because then they will know they've gotten to me, that their tactics work.  

As we're led out of the building into a corridor leading to the chow hall, we're told to stop. In front of me, I see the backs of Black and Brown men; to the left of me, a line of large white men face us in their orange and black gear, smacking their batons in their hands, waiting to pounce at any false move. This really puts the "us vs. them" mentality into perspective. Reminiscent of a time when Black people couldn't look white men in their eyes, we're yelled at to "keep your heads down." I think maybe it's hard for some of them to look us in the face because they know this is inhumane treatment and wrong.  

We're eventually led into the chow hall and told to sit. One of them tells us not to talk, threatening us with being transferred to a downstate prison. Really, I think, you don't want me to talk while I sit here for the next few hours? This is absurd. I sit silently, all the while picturing what they're doing to my property in the cell.

We wait for three hours, which is short compared to what C House endured. The walk back is just as grueling as the walk from our cells, only now I anticipate all my things being thrown about, potentially destroyed, and most definitely in disarray.  

Back up the four flights, down the gallery and I walk back into the cell. As I'm uncuffed, I realize that I'm relieved that at least it's over. Now, I'll pick through the mess and figure out how to put the pieces back together. I hear guys voicing their discontent over missing items, and I hope nothing is missing from my property.  

No matter how many times we have had to go through this, it's never something I want to endure again. There is no way this is normal. I'm sure some might argue that Orange Crush is a necessary security measure. To them, I would say that when and if an incident occurs, the individuals involved are almost always sent to another facility immediately. So they aren't the ones who are subjected to this dehumanizing ritual of retaliation and punishment. 

As the weekend comes and goes, I look forward to the lockdown being lifted and to the norms of prison life. Going to yard, access to the limited library, visits. But as I rise early on Monday and walk to the sink, I can't believe my ears. Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk. "Shit." My heart drops to my stomach. They're back.

This article was co-published with The Praxis Center.

Categories: News

Why Won't Trump Judicial Nominee Wendy Vitter Support the Landmark Desegregation Case "Brown vs. Board of Education"

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 04:00
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Last week, during Wendy Vitter's confirmation hearing for a Louisiana district court judgeship, the Donald Trump appointee (and wife of former Republican senator David Vitter) refused to say whether she supported Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case that barred racial discrimination in public schools.

"I don't mean to be coy," Vitter said when asked about it by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., "but I think I can get into a difficult, difficult area when I start commenting on Supreme Court decisions -- which are correctly decided and which I may disagree with."

As is standard these days, the comment set off a firestorm of debate over whether or not Vitter was "really" being racist.

“It is shocking that, in the year 2018, Ms. Vitter refused to say whether the Supreme Court, a unanimous Supreme Court, did the right thing when it struck down segregation and legal apartheid in America’s schools," Kristine Lucius of the Leadership Conference said in a Monday press call. 

NAACP head Derrick Johnson, during the same call, said that Vitter had joined "a growing roster of Trump nominees" who exhibit "documented hostility regarding the rights of communities of color."

Tim Morris of NOLA.com disagreed with that analysis, saying that Blumenthal "was trying to set a trap by coaxing Vitter to comment on one Supreme Court ruling that would then open the door to the case he really wanted to get to, the abortion right the court found in Roe v. Wade.

"Did Blumenthal have any reason to believe that Vitter disagreed with the court ruling or that she would be looking to overturn 64 years of precedent by deciding that 'separate but equal' was constitutional?" Morris asked.

Morris' readers are clearly invited to believe that it's preposterous to suggest that a conservative Republican from the South would oppose desegregation. It's not. Vitter has already been exposed as holding radical opinions on other matters, such as her endorsement of the belief that birth control, something nearly all women have used, is dangerous and unnatural.

But the far grimmer truth is that school desegregation is not nearly as uncontroversial as Morris would have his readers believe. In many ways, racial discrimination in public schools is alive and well. While most people would formally agree that Brown v. Board was correctly decided, in practice American schools are still segregated by race, and in many places black students are treated as second-class citizens.

"America's school-age population is more diverse than ever before, reflecting the demographic shift rapidly taking place in our country," wrote Beverly Daniel Tatum in a Los Angeles Times op-ed last September. "America's schools, however, are more segregated than they have been for decades."

In a 2014 report for the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Boardthe UCLA Civil Rights Project found that in the 11 Southern states that had their segregation laws overturned by the Brown decision, there has been a strong decline in integration after the Justice Department of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush years undermined desegregation efforts and the Supreme Court terminated desegregation orders in 1991.

"At the peak, 44% of black southern students were in majority-white schools, the kind of schools that provided strong potential opportunities for diverse learning experiences," the report reads. "By 2011, that number had declined to 23%, a drop by nearly half, and the decline has accelerated in recent years."

White parental choices help accelerate these trends. “New Orleans has a relatively diverse city population, but white parents in New Orleans disproportionately send their kids to private schools," Jon Valant of the Brookings Institution told Salon. "So the public school system looks very different, demographically, from the city as a whole." Tulane's Education Research Alliance for New Orleans released a study last year demonstrating that efforts to overhaul the education system in the city, after Hurricane Katrina, did little to reverse this trend. 

As Nikole Hannah-Jones reported in 2014 for ProPublica, 12 percent of black students in the South now attend what are deemed "apartheid schools," where less than 1 percent of the school's population is white. That problem isn't limited to the South. ProPublica tracked a similar surge in segregation in Midwestern swing states like Ohio and coastal blue states like New York and California as well.

Even when schools are technically integrated, black students often face discrimination. Many schools use "tracking" systems that function as an intra-school method of segregation. While such systems are ostensibly merit-based, channeling high-achieving kids more challenging classes, in practice they often have discriminatory effects.

"Parents who are able to secure high-track placement for their children are disproportionately likely to be white, well-educated and politically vocal," a 2013 report from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado explains. These parents use the system to keep their children "apart from students of lower wealth, students of color, or both." That report also shows that there's no real evidence that tracking improves educational outcomes, but it does exacerbate inequality.

Then there's the unequal treatment students experience on a daily basis in schools, especially when it comes to discipline. As Valant of Brookings argues, although it's difficult to get rigorous data that isolates the effects of racial discrimination in school discipline, there is "reason to worry that students of color are being punished too harshly in many schools across the country."

Valant was part of a team at the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans that found large disparities in disciplinary actions at Louisiana schools, with black students twice as likely to be suspended as white students. They looked specifically at discipline in cases where white and black student got into fights with each other and found clear disparities.

"For fights involving one white student and one black student, black students receive slightly longer suspensions than white students," the report reads. "This disparity is evident even after accounting for students’ prior discipline records, background characteristics, and school attended."

All of this means it's not preposterous at all to wonder why Vitter was so hesitant to agree that Brown v. Board of Education was a good decision. In many ways, subtle and otherwise, many white people in America have resisted school desegregation every step of the way. That resistance remains strong, even if it's not expressed as overtly as it once was. As long as Donald Trump is in the White House, there's no reason to believe this situation will improve.

Categories: News

How the Working Families Party Intends to Shake Up the 2018 Elections

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 04:00

There's a new energy in voters and they are more open than ever to big ideas about the kind of change we need, says Joe Dinkin, national communications director of the Working Families Party (WFP). From chasing Paul Ryan out of the race in Wisconsin, to challenging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for failing to deliver on his promise of a progressive budget, WFP is shaking up the 2018 midterms.

 Hill Street Studios / Erik Isakson / Getty Images)(Photo: Hill Street Studios / Erik Isakson / Getty Images)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We're now more than a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators not only about how to resist but also about how to build a better world. Today's interview is the 118th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Joe Dinkin, the campaigns and communications director at the Working Families Party (WFP). Dinkin discusses how Paul Ryan's exit is indicative of the trouble the Republican Party is in and how WFP plans to organize people around the 2018 midterms.

Sarah Jaffe: I want to start out with some of the good news. Tell us about what your reaction was to hearing that Paul Ryan was no longer going to run for his seat?

Joe Dinkin: There had been rumors swirling for a while that Paul Ryan might get out of the race as Randy Bryce's campaign picked up steam.... It turned out that the rumors were true and Paul Ryan quit before he could be fired, because Randy Bryce, the union ironworker and Working Families Party activist ... was going to give Paul Ryan the run of his life; it turned out we were right.

Randy Bryce, from the beginning said he wanted to "repeal and replace" Paul Ryan. We've gotten the first half of that done. We've repealed Paul Ryan; he'll be out of Congress. It's pretty satisfying to say that. This is a guy who has talked about dreaming of slashing Medicaid and the social safety back ... dreaming about making poor people suffer is just so infuriating that I couldn't be happier to see him exit public life.

Unfortunately, he'll probably end up with a lucrative lobbying contract of some kind, but he won't be in the same capacity -- able to inflict the kind of direct harm on people that he was able to do by ushering through the passage of the monstrous Republican tax plan.

This is the person who was the author of many tax reform plans; this one is the one that actually succeeded. Is this a sign that this particular wing of the Republican Party -- not just the Trumpist fake-populist racist wing, but the "We want to drown the government in the bathtub" wing -- is also in deep trouble?

I think they're in huge trouble. I think that what Paul Ryan realized is that what he did is politically indefensible. There's no way to take that record back to voters in any part of [the US] and justify what he did as anything other than theft in the name of governance, on behalf of some of the richest people who've ever lived -- something that will cause immense suffering to millions of Americans of modest means. It's morally indefensible and politically indefensible, and I think he saw the writing on the wall that he couldn't run on that record and win.

In that way, I think Paul Ryan is the tip of the spear, and I think a lot of other Republicans are going to realize that that vote was a deeply toxic one -- not just a stain on their conscience, but also damaging to their political standing. There was just a special congressional election in [Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district] where a Democrat won this ... sort of archetypal working-class white district, where the Republicans were running ads trying to kind of buck up the Republican tax plan. The ads weren't moving the needle and they abandoned that ad a couple of weeks before Election Day because it wasn't working and there's no way they can hide from that.

Paul Ryan kind of represented an archetypal working-class district, and so you found an archetypal working-class dude who in many ways is not just that. The thing that I find interesting about Randy Bryce, watching him for several months, is that he's not just running on being the "manly-man" ironworker. This is a guy who ran on caring for his sick mother; this is a guy who's gotten arrested with DREAMers; this is a guy who's not only calling for marijuana legalization but marijuana amnesty. He seems to be smart on a lot of things that are not the sort of white, working-class bread-and-butter issues that we hear a lot that "the Democrats have to return to or else they'll lose to Trump forever."

I think people like Randy Bryce -- which is to say working-class people -- have been used as an icon and a symbol in politics for a long time, but it's really pretty rare that somebody from a union household -- a union worker with family troubles and health problems -- is himself seen as a real political actor and not just an icon or a symbol. And I think what you're seeing with Randy is that people are actually a lot more complicated than the single stereotype. Randy is not just running on what might most immediately appeal to a pollster stereotype of the hard-hat, white working class. He's running on health care for all and the care agenda and he's been unbelievably vocal about defending the rights of immigrants and the DREAM Act and criminal justice reform and marijuana legalization and, as you pointed out, marijuana amnesty for people that have been convicted of something that really should never have been a crime.

He's running on a bold and progressive agenda that is a populist agenda that speaks to people's economic needs and also understands that there are special kinds of difficulties and oppressions that fall on people who are more marginalized.

Certain parts of the working class, we might say.

That's right. And I think the wisdom of the DC-based consultant class has been that the only way to win a swing district or even a Republican-leaning district like this one has been to run as a moderate, and it turns out that exactly the opposite is true. The only way that we're able to make that race competitive is to have somebody run on his life story, on the things that's impacted him and people he cares about and on what he believes in, which is to say, to run on this bold, multiracial populism.

Tell us about Randy Bryce's history with the Working Families Party.

Randy is somebody who was involved in the founding of the Wisconsin Working Families Party; he's been a member since the very beginning. In the moment of resistance to Trump, we started planning a series of protests all over the country, as Paul Ryan traveled the country avoiding his constituents....

At the same time, he was traveling around and doing high-dollar fundraisers ... because he was refusing to hold town hall meetings where his constituents could give him a piece of their mind about, at the time, the Republican health care plan and some of the nomination fights. We ran a series of protests ... in the places where he was going to go visit wealthy donors instead of his constituents. We would organize protests and they would use their cell phones to make video calls out to ordinary people back in Wisconsin who didn't get the chance to ask Paul Ryan a question. They would FaceTime, basically, into these protests all around the country, and one of the activists participating in those protests from back home was Randy Bryce.

So a couple of months later, when it came time to start looking at a candidate to really take the fight directly to Paul Ryan electorally, Marina Dimitrijevic, director of the Wisconsin Working Families Party, along with the Wisconsin WFP political director, sat down with Randy in a coffee shop and asked him point blank, "We need people in Congress who can represent working families, and who better than a real working-class person with a working family to be the standard-bearer for that movement and tell the truth about Paul Ryan's record?"

It took a little convincing, but Randy ultimately agreed to do it and we've been unbelievably proud of his success....

Do we know who the Republicans are that are going to step up now that Paul Ryan is not running for re-election?

It's not entirely clear. There's one sort of far-right-wing, "alt-right" white nationalist candidate in the race already; my guess is they'll recruit another sort of more polite Republican into the race as well. The filing deadline is a couple of more weeks out, so we'll have to see how it shakes out. In some ways, the Republicans are realizing their vulnerability with Ryan's record -- they get to back somebody who's never been in Congress, who would have voted exactly the same way but doesn't have it on their record and they think that will excuse them....

In other big news this week, the never-ending question for the Working Families Party has always been Andrew Cuomo and the governor's race in New York.... Andrew Cuomo has largely gotten what he wanted in those eight years, including a couple of Working Families Party nominations. What changed this time?

Four years ago, the majority of the Working Families Party state committee voted for Andrew Cuomo after he promised to pass a raft of progressive legislation and work hard to win a Democratic majority in the state senate and end the Independent Democratic Conference as a separate conference and create a Democratic majority that, in a blue state like New York, ought to actually be able to pass a lot of items on the progressive agenda -- from economic justice to reforming our democracy to ... a real plan on climate change, to criminal justice reform.

He promised a broad suite of progressive issues and he promised to elect Democrats to the state senate.,,, A little bit of background for people who aren't from New York, there has been a breakaway faction of the state senate Democrats, they call themselves the "Independent Democratic Caucus," and for the last six budgets, they have sided with Republicans and led to Republican budget after Republican budget.

Budgets are a moral document, that's where we get to fight about what's important to our society and who pays and who gains ... Andrew Cuomo in 2014 promised that he would end that unholy arrangement that was artificially keeping the New York State Senate from passing the progressive agenda. He promised he would end it, he promised he would pass the progressive agenda, he mostly broke those promises entirely....

I was at this meeting and I was really struck because there had been a lot of threats made that week. Andrew Cuomo did not go gently into that good night; he threatened the unions in order to threaten the funding of community organizations that were backing Cynthia Nixon. I was struck by the way that people in that room seemed like they weren't scared of Andrew Cuomo anymore.

Turns out organizing works. People got together and built a shared vision and said, "We're not going to be bullied by this guy." There was a sense of defiance, even.

Definitely. I think there were a couple of votes for "Hell yes" and even "Fuck yes" for Cynthia Nixon. How does this connect to the more national strategy that is now really in earnest for you? How does the choice to challenge Andrew Cuomo connect to the success of a Randy Bryce?

Here's how I would say: I think especially with Trump in the White House, with a cabinet and an administration composed of billionaires and avowed white nationalists who've been running the country, the urgency for our kind of values is felt more deeply and more broadly than ever before. People who are the opponents of that progressive agenda -- whether they're Republicans or whether they're Democrats -- are really feeling the heat right now.

And it's emboldened people to pay closer attention to politics.... It took until the election of Donald Trump for people to really wake up to the politics, pay attention to the news in a deeper way, look around and say, "Well, why can't New York pass the DREAM Act here, pass health care for all to ensure that if Trump guts Obamacare people are still covered, pass the Reproductive Health Act, and all of these measures of the progressive agenda that people deeply needed -- why can't we do that?"

It was because of these state senators who were caucusing with the Republicans, and people got active and people got mad. I think that kind of thing has happened all over the country where there is this new, activated -- almost radicalism -- there's a new energy in voters who are hungry for serious change and are really more open than ever to big ideas about the kind of change we need.

It separates you a little bit from the old model, which was very much based in New York -- unions and community groups and the fusion voting strategy. That still matters, but it's not quite the center of the WFP strategy anymore.

We have always been built on a base that includes unions, community organizations and grassroots activists, and what we've seen since the election of Trump especially -- but even going back before that, to the Bernie Sanders campaign, to the rise of some of the social movements over the last couple of years -- is that that grassroots base, the individual activists are on fire.

Unfortunately, that has meant that some of the unions, both four years ago and this year, are deciding to -- at least for now -- back away.

That's right. I think they're in a difficult position. I feel for them. I think they made a difficult decision, but I get why it happens. We are 100 percent committed to unions, to the labor movement, to workers' rights, and that's never going to change. We're always going to be there fighting for working people -- the ones in unions, the ones who deserve and don't have the protection of a union, and people piecing together work in the gig economy and those who are unemployed. Those are all working families and we're going to fight as hard as we can for each of them.

Another thing just announced about the WFP is that you have a new director. Tell us about him and the vision that he embodies for the party.

His name is Maurice Mitchell. I couldn't be more excited. I've known him for a while and he's always impressed me as an unbelievable organizer, strategist and leader.... He's spoken really eloquently in the media in the last couple of days about his vision for where we're going, which is a vision that kind of ends the false dichotomy between the fights for economic and racial justice, and says we need both of those things and a vision that embraces the rise of some of the social movements that have sprung up over the last couple of years -- from Occupy to the climate movement to the DREAMers to the Movement for Black Lives -- and says there's all these people in the streets, all the way up to the most recent youth-led movement against gun violence, and says these are people who are fired up and need a new political home, and we could be that home.

And there was one other thing going on for y'all this week.

One other thing -- actually, there's a few other things. We won paid sick days in New Jersey this week. But the one other thing I was going to talk about was, we also had 75 people in Las Vegas at our ... growing political education program ... for an intense, three-day-long political education program that was built on a big analysis about helping people develop their ideology, on class exploitation, on structural racism, on the reinforcement of gender roles in our society and on a broken democracy that has failed to really transform and overcome those challenges that we're facing.... It's a pretty cool model that we're trying out that we've been growing around the country.

How can people get involved with any and all of the things we've talked about today?

People can go to our website at WorkingFamilies.org and sign up.... And also follow us on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and all the social media if that's how you stay engaged -- you can find us there, too.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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Categories: News

Under Louisiana Bill, Peaceful Protesters Could Face 20 Years in Prison

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 04:00

 Julie Dermansky / Corbis via Getty Images)The environmental group 350.org's "Draw the Line on Tar Sands and the Keystone XL pipeline" protest took the form of a second line parade as it made its way through the french quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 21, 2013. Under a proposed Louisiana law, peaceful protests against pipeline infrastructural projects bear the possibility of prison sentences as long as 20 years, or fines of up to $10,000. (Photo: Julie Dermansky / Corbis via Getty Images)

With House Bill 727, Louisiana has joined a growing number of states that are criminalizing nonviolent civil disobedience actions at "critical infrastructure" sites, which typically include pipelines, refineries and electrical power facilities. Financed by Big Oil, the Louisiana bill makes even discussing a possible trespass action punishable with prison sentences of five years and fines up to $10,000.

 Julie Dermansky / Corbis via Getty Images)The environmental group 350.org's "Draw the Line on Tar Sands and the Keystone XL pipeline" protest took the form of a second line parade as it made its way through the french quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 21, 2013. Under a proposed Louisiana law, peaceful protests against pipeline infrastructural projects bear the possibility of prison sentences as long as 20 years, or fines of up to $10,000. (Photo: Julie Dermansky / Corbis via Getty Images)

On April 12, 2018, in the chambers of the Louisiana State House of Representatives, Rep. Major Thibaut Jr. stepped up to the microphone before the Speaker to introduce seemingly benign House Bill 727. According to his testimony, the bill was humble -- almost technical -- in scope and aimed primarily to add "pipelines" to the list of what the state considers "critical infrastructure." It had faced no opposition in committee, Thibaut added, and had "over sixty-something authors."

The bill would impose severe penalties on peaceful protesters engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience actions at sites considered "critical infrastructure".

"It's a good bill," he said, then motioned for favorable passage. Ninety-seven legislators voted yay, three voted nay, and just like that, all 4.6 million residents of Louisiana took a step toward losing their First Amendment rights. Should the bill become law, it would impose severe penalties on peaceful protesters engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience actions at sites considered "critical infrastructure" by Thibaut's bill. In fact, simply planning to take such an action, considered "conspiracy" by HB 727, could be punishable by fees of up to $10,000 and prison sentences as long as 20 years.

With the crack of a gavel, Louisiana joined the growing number of states across the nation with similar "critical infrastructure" bills moving swiftly through the courts and onto governors' desks.

The first appeared in Oklahoma in May 2017. According to the bill's author, Rep. Mark McBride, it was an attempt to keep Oklahoma from paying costs related to any Diamond Pipeline protests. The law beefed up penalties for protesters who trespassed on property containing a "critical infrastructure facility." The definition of such facilities varies by state but tends to include energy-industry sites like pipelines, refineries and electrical power facilities.

Since the ALEC Summit, bills like Louisiana's HB 727 have cropped up all over the country.

Shortly after Oklahoma signed the bill into law, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded group that holds annual meetings with state legislators and lobbyists to vote on "model" legislation, took the measure up itself at its summit in Nashville, Tennessee, in December 2017. ALEC calls its model bill "The Critical Infrastructure Protection Act," claiming the bill drew its "inspiration" from laws enacted in 2017 by the State of Oklahoma.

Since the ALEC Summit, bills like Louisiana's HB 727 have cropped up all over the country. In Ohio, where construction on the Rover pipeline resulted in repeated spills of toxic drilling materialSenate Bill 250 suddenly appeared. Its language reflects the ALEC-inspired bill, aiming to "prohibit criminal mischief ... on a critical infrastructure facility." It would also impose fines on organizations "complicit" with said activity.

In Iowa, Senate Study Bill 3062 penalizes those who'd commit "sabotage" of critical infrastructure facilities with fines of up to $100,000 and 25 years in jail.

In March 2018, lawmakers in Minnesota introduced HF 3693, which would, among other things, criminalize anyone who "recruits, trains, aids, advises, hires, counsels, or conspires with" a trespasser at an infrastructure site. Minnesota courts could use the law to punish these "conspirator" groups or individuals with a full year in jail and/or a $3,000 fine.

Louisiana House Bill 727, introduced in late March, is even more severe than the original ALEC-inspired legislation. If enacted, the law could potentially penalize people who never even set foot on one of its protected sites. Under the bill as written, simply discussing a possible trespass action could result in prison sentences of five years and fines up to $10,000. Actually damaging pipeline infrastructure could lead to 15 years in jail, and it could lead to 20 years if the damage interrupts construction site operations or endangers human life.

It remains unclear how the conspiracy clause of this bill would be enforced in Louisiana, should the measure become law. In a phone interview with Truthout, Alicia Cooke of the volunteer climate activist group 350 New Orleans wondered aloud, "How do you prove that someone is conspiring to trespass on property? Versus conspiring to gather near property?"

In recalling a recent protest march that 350 New Orleans organized in St. James Parish, Cooke said participants reported feeling "the shadow of the law" that day as they marched down public roads past Entergy facilities. "I worry that if we did something like that again ... if someone just put a toe out of line on that marching route onto Entergy's property, it might be construed as a malicious act and give [authorities] cause to arrest someone," Cooke told Truthout.

The bill's author, Rep. Thibaut, said in House Chambers on April 12, 2018, that it would "give law enforcement the tools they need to protect our people." Opponents, however, note that private property protections and trespassing measures are already on the books in Louisiana. Instead, opponents of the bill argue that the measure is meant to silence groups opposed to the construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. A 162-mile crude oil transport line that would serve as the final leg of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC is a joint venture of Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66.

"There's no question about the timing," Anne Rolfes, the founding director of the environmental justice nonprofit Louisiana Bucket Brigade, told Truthout in a phone interview. "It's a really clear puppet string between the oil industry and Energy Transfer Partners and our legislature."

The bill comes on the heels of a recent victory in the courts by the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper and other local environmental groups. In late February, a federal injunction by US District Court Judge Shelly Dick temporarily prohibited Energy Transfer Partners from continuing pipeline construction work in the Atchafalaya Basin "in order to prevent further irreparable harm" to the ecosystem, which includes both old-growth cypress trees and crawfishing grounds for local fishermen.

It's the ultimate irony ... we're not considering our own water, our own forests, our own wetlands to be critical infrastructure.

Weeks later, however, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals granted Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC's appeal request for a stay on the temporary injunction. The three-judge panel was divided. The majority decision held that Dick abused her discretion when granting the injunction. Dissenting Judge Davis, in contrast, held that the environmental assessment report "did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act" by adequately detailing how construction-related damage done to the environment would be properly mitigated.

The original suit filed by the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, among other organizations, is slated to be heard by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Houston on April 30, 2018.

In contrast to the relatively benign activities of the environmental activists in the state -- holding up banners and staging ad-hoc musicals at pipeline worksites -- oil and gas companies in Louisiana have already wreaked substantive harm on the wetlands. Beyond supplying estuary habitat for one of the most robust fisheries in the nation, Louisiana's coastal marsh plays a major role in protecting inland communities by attenuating storm surge and high winds from hurricanes.

Damage to the health of the wetlands, in fact, is likely to be far more costly to the state in the long run than temporary work stoppages due to activism along the Bayou Bridge Pipeline construction route. Over the next 50 years, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Agency intends to pay $644 million to restore the nearly 2,000 miles of coastal wetlands that have been lost to open water in the past 80 years. Research shows that oil and gas activities, particularly the dredging of at least 10,000 miles of canals to allow access to oil wells and other structures, are to blame for a significant portion of this land loss. One study, published by researchers at Louisiana State University, investigated land loss in three southeast Louisiana basins since 1956. They found that "canal dredging significantly and directly related to wetland losses," noting that for each hectare (a little over two acres) of canal dredged, there was a corresponding net loss of 2.85 hectares of land over the 34-year time frame of the study.

Beyond dredging-related damage to the wetlands, Louisiana can also expect more oil spills from the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Energy Transfer Partners, Sunoco and their subsidiaries reported 527 pipeline spills from 2002-2017, averaging approximately one incident every eleven days, according to a recent report issued by Greenpeace USA and Waterkeeper Alliance. These accidents spilled 3.6 million gallons of crude oil and other hazardous liquids -- enough to fill five-and-a-half Olympic-size swimming pools.

"I am very deeply concerned about the Bayou Bridge Pipeline Project and the potential for Energy Transfer Partners to repeatedly break the law and do harm to many waterways across the state," said Donna Lisenby, a campaign manager with the Waterkeeper Alliance and one of the co-authors of the report, while speaking to reporters on April 17, 2018.

Unfortunately, a quick survey of Representative Thibaut's campaign contributors over the years -- which include donors like Atmos Energy, Exxon and Chevron -- suggests he may be tempted to prioritize the wishes of corporations over scientific recommendations or the constitutional rights of his constituents. Now that the Louisiana bill has passed through the House, it will travel to the Senate for debate. Meanwhile, in Ohio, Iowa and Minnesota, state lawmakers are pushing their versions of the ALEC-inspired bill through committees and legislative chambers.

"It's the ultimate irony," said Cooke. "We're considering critical infrastructure to be pipelines, oil refineries, and oil wells. But we're not considering our own water, our own forests, our own wetlands to be critical infrastructure."

Cooke, who continues to organize with 350 New Orleans against the bill, said she felt sad about it all, adding, "It just shows what we've chosen to prioritize in Louisiana."

Rolfes, however, sees reason for hope. "Resistance to fossil fuels in general and oil specifically is growing," she said. "Although it's disheartening to see these bills, it shows you the status of their industry. Their future is on shaky footing."

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Categories: News

Tax Day 2018: A Bonanza for Corporations and the Military

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 04:00

2018.4.17.Koshgarian.mainThe Trump tax plan will likely lead to a corporate income tax cut of $135 billion in 2018 alone. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Individual taxpayers are contributing five times more money than corporations to the federal government via the 2017 taxes that are due today. A significant portion of this money is going directly to military contractors who pay their CEOs millions of dollars. A 10 percent cut in spending on military contractors would fund 395,000 school teachers or provide health insurance for 13 million children.

2018.4.17.Koshgarian.mainThe Trump tax plan will likely lead to a corporate income tax cut of $135 billion in 2018 alone. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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The IRS is projected to gather roughly $1.6 trillion in individual income taxes this year, and these taxes will make up almost half of the revenue of the federal government for 2017.

By comparison, corporations are expected to pay $297 billion in federal income taxes. Individuals will contribute five times as much in income taxes to the federal government as corporations do.

It wasn't always this way. Corporations used to pay more income taxes than individuals did. In 1943, for example, corporations contributed 40 percent of federal revenues, compared to just 9 percent today.

What happened?

Throughout the last half of the 20th century, individual income tax revenues kept growing. Corporate income taxes didn't keep the pace, growing much more slowly than individual income tax revenues. The corporate tax rate declined from over 50 percent in the 1950s to 35 percent as of 2017.

The Trump tax plan will likely lead to a corporate income tax cut of $135 billion in 2018 alone.

The failure of corporate tax contributions to keep up with individual income taxes is even more egregious considering that corporate profits are at historically high levels. According to an analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, corporate profits were 5.5 percent of the national economy in 1952, compared to 9.5 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, the federal government's shift away from taxing corporations is about to become even more extreme in the coming year, now that Trump's tax plan has taken effect and funds even more corporate giveaways in the 2018 tax year.

Increased Corporate Giveaways Under Trump's Tax Plan

The Trump tax plan that passed Congress at the end of 2017 is set to cut corporate taxes even more, shrinking the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to just 21 percent.

Even before the Trump tax plan, the US collected less taxes from corporations than do many other advanced economies. The effects of the Trump plan are likely to mean the US will be dead last among advanced economies in the corporate taxes it collects compared to the size of the economy. The Trump tax plan will likely lead to a corporate income tax cut of $135 billion in 2018 alone.

In 2017, the average individual taxpayer contributed $1,600 to military contractors.

The tax plan also rewards a top corporate tax avoidance strategy: corporate offshoring. Before the passage of the latest tax plan, corporations that hold their profits overseas were already able to avoid paying federal income taxes, and many make indefinite use of this loophole to avoid taxes. Now, the new tax plan allows them to bring these profits back to the US while paying only a tax rate of 15.5 percent, even lower than the reduced 21 percent corporate tax rate.

Meanwhile, the wealth that was supposed to flow from corporations to individual workers as a result of these tax cuts is not panning out. Even as they loudly trumpet bonus packages or wage hikes for workers, corporations have mostly opted to reward stockholders. A combination of increased distributions to stockholders and stock buybacks rewards shareholders, who tend to be wealthy, and does next to nothing for workers.

Federal Tax Dollars Flow to Military Contractors

Income taxes fund a federal budget that provides deeply needed public services that couldn't happen any other way -- things like protecting the environment, medical research and public education. However, many of these dollars also end up in the hands of corporations through federal contracts. In 2017, nine out of 10 of the top US federal contractors were primarily contracted under the Department of Defense.

Last year, the US paid more than $320 billion in federal tax dollars to military contractors like Lockheed Martin and the Boeing Company, makers of the F-35 jet fighter and the Apache helicopter, respectively. In 2017, the average individual taxpayer contributed $1,600 to military contractors. That's 11 cents out of every income tax dollar. 

Government contracts to corporations often act as a direct subsidy to economic inequality. The biggest federal contractor, Lockheed Martin, receives the vast majority of its revenues from federal tax revenues and rewarded its CEO with a $20 million pay package. The average US taxpayer contributed $240 to Lockheed Martin in 2017. CEOs for the top five military contractors took home a combined $96 million in pay.

The Trump administration's recent bombing of Syria prompted watchers to note the cost of weapons used in the strike at upward of $118 million.

Federal contractors still benefit from corporate tax cuts under the Trump plan. Military contractor Raytheon noted that it plans to use its tax cuts in much the same way as other corporations: by "returning capital to shareholders through share buy backs and dividends." The difference is that not all corporations using the tax cuts to reward shareholders make their money from the federal government.

Military contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon also sell their weapons and military aircraft to foreign governments, and still take advantage of the offshoring of profits. The tax plan provides a feedback loop of reinforcement for these bad behaviors: Analysts have noted that repatriated profits under the offshoring tax loophole might themselves be used for shareholder dividends and share buybacks.

Even as federal contractors benefit from tax cuts, the biggest contractors also stand to benefit from another Trump signature policy: the policy of expanding the military and war. The military budget is set at $716 billion for 2019, the highest in more than a generation. Roughly half of that is likely to end up in with the Pentagon's corporate contractors. And the Trump administration's recent bombing of Syria prompted watchers to note the cost of weapons used in the strike at upward of $118 million.

Profits Over People: Domestic Spending Can't Keep Up

Even as the job and wage improvement promises of the Trump tax plan go up in smoke, federal spending on everything else -- from education, to veterans, to cancer research -- lags behind.

Out of every income tax dollar, 23 cents goes to the military, and 11 cents of that go to military contractors, but just 6 cents go toward benefits for veterans from all of our past and current wars.

A 10 percent cut in spending on military contractors would provide health insurance for 13 million children.

Military contractors are better funded than almost every function of government: Of every tax dollar we pay, three cents go to federal student aid for higher education; two cents go to food stamps, according to the National Priorities Project. Less than a penny goes to the Environmental Protection Agency, which President Trump has threatened with a 23 percent budget cut. The only public need on which we spend nearly as much as we spend on military contractors is health care.

That leaves a lot to individuals and to stretched city and state budgets to cover: education, housing and the environment are all distant seconds to corporate welfare when it comes to federal spending.

These choices have real consequences. A 10 percent cut in spending on military contractors would provide enough money to hire 395,000 elementary school teachers or provide health insurance for 13 million children.

Repealing the Trump tax cuts would provide enough to create more than 4 million infrastructure jobs, 39 million Pell grants at the maximum grant amount, or early child care for 25 million children.

Changing the Balance

The US tax system has provided a range of benefits to corporations, from low tax rates to loopholes, for decades. The Trump tax plan doubles down on this approach, lowering the corporate tax rate even further and rewarding corporations that made use of loopholes like offshoring profits.

This tax system is matched by federal spending choices that prioritize the military industrial complex, whose corporate members are a model of tax avoidance and corporate inequality, complete with taxpayer-funded high CEO pay.

Combined, these policies serve to shortchange domestic priorities, from job creation to education.

Categories: News

Class Dismissed: Class Conflict in Red State America

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 04:00

2018.4.17.TeacherStrike.mainKentucky Public school teachers protest outside the Kentucky House Chamber as they rally for a day of action at the Kentucky State Capitol to try to pressure legislators to override Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin's recent veto of the state's tax and budget bills, April 13, 2018, in Frankfort, Kentucky. The teachers also oppose a controversial pension reform bill which Gov. Bevin signed into law. (Photo by Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

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Teachers in red-state America are hard at work teaching us all a lesson. The American mythos has always rested on a belief that this country was born out of a kind of immaculate conception, that the New World came into being and has forever after been preserved as a land without the class hierarchies and conflicts that so disfigured Europe.

The strikes, rallies, and walkouts of public school teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, soon perhaps Arizona, and elsewhere are a stunning reminder that class has always mattered far more in our public and private lives than our origin story would allow. Insurgent teachers are instructing us all about a tale of denial for which we've paid a heavy price.

Professionals or Proletarians?

Are teachers professionals, proletarians, or both? One symptom of our pathological denial of class realities is that we are accustomed to thinking of teachers as "middle class." Certainly, their professional bona fides should entitle them to that social station. After all, middle class is the part of the social geography that we imagine as the aspirational homing grounds for good citizens of every sort, a place so all-embracing that it effaces signs of rank, order, and power. The middle class is that class so universal that it's really no class at all.

School teachers, however, have always been working-class stiffs. For a long time, they were also mainly women who would have instantly recognized the insecurities, struggles to get by, and low public esteem that plague today's embattled teachers.

The women educators of yesteryear may have thought of their work as a profession or a "calling," subject to its own code of ethics and standards of excellence, as well as an intellectual pursuit and social service. But whatever they thought about themselves, they had no ability to convince public authorities to pay attention to such aspirations (and they didn't). As "women's work," school teaching done by "school marms" occupied an inherently low position in a putatively class-free America.

What finally lent weight to the incipient professional ideals of public school teachers was, ironically, their unionization; that is, their self-identification as a constituent part of the working class. The struggle to create teacher unions was one of the less heralded breakthroughs of the 1960s and early 1970s. A risky undertaking, involving much self-sacrifice and militancy, it was met with belligerent resistance by political elites everywhere. When victory finally came, it led to considerable improvements in the material conditions of a chronically underpaid part of the labor force. Perhaps no less important, for the first time it institutionalized the long-held desire of teachers for some respect, a desire embodied in tenure systems and other forms of professional recognition and protection.

Those hard-won teachers' unions also paved the way for the large-scale organization of government workers of every sort. That was yet another world at odds with itself: largely white collar and well educated, with a powerful sense of professionalism, yet long mistreated, badly underpaid, and remarkably powerless, as if its denizens were… well, real life proletarians (which, of course, was exactly what they were).

Rebellion in the Land of Acquiescence and Austerity

Despite their past history of working-class rebelliousness, the sight of teachers striking (and sometimes even breaking the law to do so) still has a remarkable ability to shock the rest of us. Somehow, it just doesn't fit the image, still so strong, of the mild-mannered, middle-class, law-abiding professionals that public school teachers are supposed to be.

What drives that shock even deeper is where all this uproar is happening. After all, for decades those "red states" have been the lands of acquiescence to the rule of big money and its political enablers. The state of Oklahoma, for example, had a legislature so craven, so slavishly in the service of the Koch brothers and the oil industry, that it prohibited the people's representatives by law from passing new taxes with anything but a legislative supermajority. (A simple majority was, of course, perfectly sufficient when it came to cutting taxes.)

Arizona typically has had a "right-to-work" law since 1947 to fend off attempts to organize workers. Such laws are, in fact, a grotesque misnomer. Rather than guaranteeing employment, they ban unions from negotiating contracts requiring that all workers who benefit from the contract become members of the union and contribute dues to cover the costs of their representation. In all these states, teachers (along with other public employees) are prohibited or severely limited by law from striking.

Such concerted and contagious insurgency in the homelands of the bended knee was unimaginable… until, of course, it happened. Both acquiescence and the current explosive wave of resistance from teachers were the wages of austerity. Those particular Republican-run states were hardly the only ones to cut social services to the bone while muscling up on giveaways to corporate powerbrokers. (Plenty of Democrat-run state governments did the same.) But the abysmal conditions of public schools and the people who work in them in those states have made them the poster children for an age of austerity that's lasted decades.

Oklahoma, for instance, cut funding per student by 30% over the past 10 years and led the nation when it came to education cutbacks since the 2008 recession. Meanwhile, Arizona has spent less per student than any other state. And that's just to start down a list of red-state austerity measures in education. The nitty gritty result of such slash-and-burn tactics has meant classes with outdated textbooks, antiquated computers (if any at all), schoolhouses without heat, and sometimes even a four-day version of the usual five-day school week.

West Virginia's teachers, the first to go out on strike, averaged salaries of $45,240 in 2016, which ranked them 47th in the nation in teacher pay. At $41,000, Oklahoma is even worse. Arizona's teachers, now threatening to join the strike lines, are 43rd, while Kentucky does only a bit better at $52,000. At some point -- always impossible to predict no matter how inevitable it may seem in hindsight -- enough proved enough.

Austerity is a politics of class overlordship, or (as we tend to say these days) the dominion of the 1%. It entails, however, far more than just the starving of the public sector, especially education. Those teacher's salaries and the grim conditions of the deprived schools that go with them are just the budgetary expression of a deeper process of ruthless economic underdevelopment and cultural cruelty.

After all, over the last generation, the deindustrialization of America has paid handsome dividends to financiers, merger and acquisition speculators, junk bond traders, and corporations fleeing a unionized work force for the sweated labor of the global South. In the process, deindustrialization ravaged the economic and social landscape of working-class communities (including that of red-state teachers), turned whole cities into ghost towns, leaving millions on the down escalator of social mobility, and made opioids the dietary staple of the country's rural and urban hinterlands.

In the process, deindustrialization dried up sources of industry-based tax revenues which had once helped maintain a modicum of social services, including ones as basic as public education. Tax givebacks, subsidies, or exemptions for the business world grew lush as roads, bridges, public transport, health care, and classrooms deteriorated.

Blaming the Victims

Scapegoats for this unfolding disaster were rounded up -- the usual suspects, of course: the inherent laziness of the desperately poor and immigrants, all living off the public weal; liberal sentimentalists manning the welfare state; greedy unionized workers undermining American competitiveness; and above all, the racially disfavored.

Oh yes, and there was one extra, far more surprising miscreant in that line-up: those otherwise quintessentially respectable, law-abiding professionals teaching our kids. If those children failed to measure up, if they couldn't read or write or do math, if they were scientific illiterates, if they grew up black or "undocumented" distrusting official authority, if they dropped out or were drugged out, if they seemed to exhibit an all-sided dysfunction and ill-discipline, it had to be the fault of their teachers. After all, they had cushy jobs, went home at three, had their summers off, and enjoyed immunity from public oversight thanks to their all-too-powerful unions.

Acquiescence and austerity breed cultural decline, a telling sign of which has been the blaming of teachers for a profound, many-sided social breakdown they were largely the brunt of, not the cause of. A country undergoing systemic underdevelopment like the United States can't provide decent housing or health care, a non-toxic environment or reasonable child care, color-blind justice or well-equipped schoolhouses, no less rewarding work. The classroom inherits all those deficits.

Millions of children arrive at school burdened by the costs of secular decline before they ever enter their first class. Teachers try to cope, often heroically, but it's a losing battle and they get stigmatized for the defeat. It matters not at all that many of them, like those staffing the school systems of West Virginia or Oklahoma, spend innumerable hours beyond the "normal" school day prepping and inventing ways to treat the wounds of social meanness. They even draw on their own spare resources to make up for yawning gaps in books, computers, paper (and not just notebook paper, but toilet paper) that state and local governments have refused to provide funds for.

In those children and those schools can be seen a vision of our society's future and clearly it doesn't work. Like so much else about American life of late, this is a world of "winners" and "losers" -- and the kids, as well as the teachers, have been on the wrong side of that equation for far too long now.

How convenient it is for the powers-that-be to depict the striking teachers as the problem, as the "losers," while whittling away at their salaries, supplies, tenure arrangements, and other union protections (when they're fortunate enough to even have unions), while lengthening teaching hours, reducing vital prep periods, and subjecting them to the discipline of teaching to the test. Just to make ends meet, teachers in those red states often have to moonlight as waitresses or car-service drivers. In a word, until the recent strikes and walk-outs, they had been turned into powerless rather than empowered proletarians.

If Not Now, When?

Punishing and demoralizing as this regime has been, the teachers stood up. Though the urge to write "finally stood up" is there, no one should underestimate the courage and desperation it takes to do just that. Moreover, this moment of resistance to an American world of austerity overseen by plutocrats is not as surprising as it might seem.

We live in the era of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. In their starkly different ways each of them is symptomatic of our moment -- in Trump's case of a pathological condition, in Sanders's of the possibility of recovery from the disease of acquiescence and austerity. In both, you can see the established order losing its grip. Even before the Sanders campaign, there were signs that the winds were shifting, most dramatically in the Occupy Wall Street uprising (however short-lived that was). Today, thanks in part to the Sanders phenomenon, millennials who were especially drawn to the Vermont senator make up the most pro-union part of the general population.

Atmospheric change of this sort was abetted by elements closer to the ground. Irate teachers in the red states were generally either not in unions at all or only in union-like institutions with little power or influence. So they had to rely on themselves to mold a fighting force, an act of social creativity which happens rarely. When it does, however, it's both captivating and inspiring, as the West Virginia uprising clearly proved to be in a surprising number of other red states.

Class matters as does its history. West Virginia wasn't the only place where striking or protesting teachers entered the fray well aware and proud of their state's long history of working class resistance to the predatory behavior of employers. In the case of West Virginia, it was the coal barons. Many of the strikers had families where memories of the mine wars were still archived.

Kentucky, most memorably "bloody Harlan County," where strikes, bombings, and other forms of civil war between mine owners and workers went on for nearly a decade in the 1930s (requiring multiple interventions by state and federal troops), can say the same. Oklahoma, even when it was still a territory, had a vibrant populist movement and later a militant labor movement that included robust representation from the Industrial Workers of the World (the legendary "Wobblies"), a tradition of resistance that flared up again during the Great Depression.

Arizona was once similarly home to a militant labor tradition in its metal mining industries. Its grim history was most infamously acted out in Bisbee, Arizona, in 1917. At that time, copper miners striking against Phelps Dodge and other mining companies were rounded up by deputized vigilantes, hauled out to the New Mexican desert in fetid railroad boxcars, and left there to fend for themselves. Those mine wars against Phelps Dodge and other corporate goliaths continued well into the 1980s.

Memories like these helped stoke the will to resist and to envision a world beyond acquiescence and austerity. Under normal circumstances to be proletarian is to be without power. Before capital is an economic category, it's a political one. If you have it, you're obviously so much freer to do as you please; if you don't, you're dependent on those who do. Hiding in plain sight, however, is a contrary fact: without the collective work of those ostensibly powerless workers, nothing moves.

This is emphatically the case with skilled workers, which after all is what teachers are. Discovering this "fact" and acting on it requires a leap of moral imagination. That this happened to the beleaguered teachers of so many red states is reflected in the esprit de corps that numerous accounts of these rebellions have reported, including the likening of the strikes to an "Arab Spring for teachers."

And keep in mind that many other parts of the modern labor force suffer from precarious conditions not so dissimilar from those of the public school teachers, including highly skilled "professionals" like computer techies, college teachers, journalists, and even growing numbers of engineers. So the recent strikes may portend similar recognitions of latent power in equally improbable zones where professionals are undergoing a process of proletarianization.

An imaginative leap of the sort those teachers have taken bears other fruit that nourishes victory. Instead of depicting their struggles as confined to their own "profession," for instance, the teachers today are fashioning their movement to echo broader desires. In Oklahoma and West Virginia, for example, they have insisted on improvements not just in their own working lives, but in those of all school staff members. Oklahoma teachers refused to go back to school even after the legislature granted them a raise, insisting that the state adequately fund the education system as well. And everywhere these insurgencies have deliberately made common cause with the whole community that uses the schools -- parents and students alike -- while repeatedly expressing the desire that children not be sacrificed on the altar of austerity.

Nothing could be more at odds with the emotional logic of austerity and acquiescence, with a society that has learned to salute "winners" and give the back of the hand to "losers," than the widening social sympathy that has been sweeping through the schoolhouses of red state America.

Class dismissed? It doesn't look like it.

Categories: News

Bloody Violence in South Carolina Prison Shines Light on Inhumane Conditions Across US

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 04:00

At least seven prisoners died and 17 were seriously injured after bloody violence broke out Sunday night at a maximum security prison in South Carolina. It was the deadliest prison riot in the United States in 25 years. A coroner said all of the prisoners were stabbed, slashed or beaten. Six of the seven were African-American. No guards were hurt. In total, at least 20 prisoners have been killed by fellow prisoners in South Carolina since the start of 2017. One investigation found the number killed across the state's prisons had quadrupled from 2015 to 2017. The state's prison agency has also been hit with several lawsuits that outline a "long history of violence" and allege sometimes the violence is "encouraged" by guards. We speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Heather Ann Thompson, who wrote Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: News

Trump's Legal Worries Grow as Judge Rejects Effort for President to Review Documents Seized in FBI Raid

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 04:00

In a potentially major setback for President Trump, a federal judge has rejected efforts from the president to be given first access to documents seized by the FBI last week during raids on the properties of Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen, who is being investigated for possible bank and wire fraud. Monday's court hearing pitted the president against his own Justice Department. Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas McKay urged the judge to reject the president's request. McKay said, "Just because he has a powerful client doesn't mean he should get special treatment." The FBIseized 10 boxes of documents and as many as a dozen electronic devices from Cohen. According to press accounts, the Trump administration now views the probe into Cohen as a more serious threat to the president than special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. Meanwhile, on Monday, Cohen's attorneys were forced to reveal Fox News host Sean Hannity was also one of Cohen's other legal clients. Just last week, Hannity slammed the FBI for raiding Cohen's office and home, but he never disclosed his ties to Cohen. We speak to Marcy Wheeler, independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties. She runs the website EmptyWheel.net.

Please check back later for full transcript.

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